History took center stage at Allen University as the newly renovated Chappelle Auditorium showed off its improvements.
Friday’s rededication ceremony at the auditorium, which was completed in 1925 and named a National Historic Landmark in 1975, celebrated the building’s past while looking toward its future. Wood floors and columns gleamed underneath original metal ceiling tiles, and the restored bulbs of an ornate chandelier sparkled as local dignitaries recalled the revered figures who have appeared in the building.
Chappelle Auditorium, with a seating capacity of 700, served as the largest gathering place for blacks in Columbia during the Jim Crow South. Designed by John Anderson Langford, known as the “dean of black architects,” the hall served as a meeting place for rallies to overturn school segregation and for leaders of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the denomination that founded Allen.
The auditorium, located at 1530 Harden St., also provided a stage for artists such as Leontyne Price, Brook Benton and Langston Hughes. Other notable names to appear in the building include Mary McLeod Bethune, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Muhammad Ali.
“Just the whole atmosphere has kind of come back, and I think the alums — well, you can see on their faces. They are just thrilled to be back in this space,” said Lady June Cole, Allen University president. “I can’t think of a word to describe it. It was phenomenal, just seeing the people in the seats and knowing that we are back up and running again.”
Chappelle was closed for decades before renovations began in 2014. The school received a $1 million federal stimulus grant in 2009 toward the $3 million renovation, and aerospace giant Boeing Co. contributed $250,000 in April 2015 and another $100,000 this February in the name of Rev. Clementa Pinckney, an Allen graduate and state senator who was killed in the Charleston church shootings last June.
“This auditorium has been a solid foundation, a cornerstone of this community, since 1925,” Columbia attorney I.S. Leevy Johnson said during the rededication ceremony. “When you look at these columns, you should remember how Allen University has held up the standards of education.”
Friday’s ceremony also marked the opening of the Bishop Richard F. Norris Center for Performing Arts, to be housed within the Chappelle Administration Building. Cole said the school hopes to begin hosting rotating arts shows in the facility soon.
Norris, chairman of the Allen University Board of Trustees, and his wife were presented with proclamations from the state in recognition of their efforts to raise the school’s profile.