Masterpieces take time, and part of their beauty lies in the anticipation. As with a long-awaited sculpture unveiling or those breathless moments as house lights dim and a theater curtain rises, the excitement is palpable for the debut of arguably the grandest public artwork in Charleston’s history: the new Gaillard Center. Three years and one month in the making, the $143.5-million gem welcomes its first patrons this month, with its stage christened by none other than Yo-Yo Ma, who performs with the Charleston Symphony Orchestra on October 18.
“Opening with an artist of that caliber sets the tone for what the Gaillard Center will be, for not just Charleston, but the region—a venue for the best of the best,” says John Rivers Jr., who serves on the board of the Gaillard Performance Hall Foundation. The Foundation is central to the public/private partnership that has made the Center possible—kicking in up to $71 million in privately donated funds, including a gift from Rivers and his sisters, Elizabeth Rivers Lewine and Martha Rivers Ingram, chair of the Foundation board, in honor of their parents’ legacy of civic and cultural engagement, now memorialized by the Martha and John M. Rivers Performance Hall. “This is history repeating itself,” Rivers adds, noting the city’s 18th-century fiscal and cultural wealth. “Like Paris or Prague, Charleston is known as ‘a city of light,’ and the new Gaillard Center showcases that we are a city of light and enlightenment.”
Flashback, way back, to 1968 when similar fanfare accompanied the opening of the Gaillard version 1.0. Amid the tumult of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights era, the Gaillard Municipal Auditorium was a bold gesture announcing that this small, rumpled old city was looking forward. A big box of a building, the original Gaillard—named for J. Palmer Gaillard Jr. (City of Charleston mayor from 1959 to 1975)—was contemporary in design, an aesthetic that, over time, morphed from bold into bland. More significantly, the auditorium’s 2,750-seat capacity proved vacuous and awkward—too big for smaller audiences or more intimate performances and difficult to maneuver, especially for those with accessibility concerns. Most notably, however, the former Gaillard’s sub-par acoustics meant it underperformed as a performance hall. With a total overhaul, all these issues and more have been addressed.
The Gaillard Center of 2015 is elegant and refined. In contrast to an increasingly “untucked” generation, she is classic, polished, and dressed to the nines. Stately columns, marble floors, ornate ceilings, thoughtful Charleston-inspired embellishments, even old-fashioned opera boxes—she’s a Grace Kelly in a Kim Kardashian world. And she’s ours, plural, as in all of ours—belonging equally to the generous donors whose names are engraved on primo seats and school children who will get to experience free concerts. Whether we prefer opera or ballet or the annual SEWE duck-calling contest, whether we attend red-carpet galas or maneuver red-tape matters in the new municipal offices, the Gaillard Center—with welcoming gardens and versatile event and convention spaces, in addition to the acoustically optimized performance hall—promises to be a dynamic hub of civic life.
The Performance Hall
Designed by world-renowned David M. Schwartz Architects of Washington, D.C., with acoustical engineering by Akustiks, LLC, and theater consultation by Fisher Dachs Associates of New York, the neoclassical Gaillard Center and its centerpiece Performance Hall is modeled after great European concert halls, with an orchestra level surrounded by three balcony tiers.
All in the Details
From ornate ceilings to sweeping stairwells to a Lowcountry-inspired palette of coral, dusty blue, soft green, and taupe, the Gaillard Center’s interiors announce “wow!”
Galas & Groups Galore
Long gone is the “welcome to the basement” feel of the old Gaillard Exhibition Hall. Now, there are elegant gathering spaces for celebrations of all sorts