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Chappelle Auditorium renovation labor of love for architect

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Arched windows on the balcony level are featured architectural detail found in the Chappelle Auditorium at Allen University. (Photos/Chuck Crumbo)

Before Chappelle Auditorium opened its doors to show off its $3 million in painstaking renovations, it gave Jerome Simons a private concert.

Simons is a project architect at Columbia architecture, engineering, design and construction services firm GMK Associates Inc., which won the Chappelle Auditorium renovation contract. He had a hand in much of the work that went into refurbishing the 91-year-old National Historic Landmark, the anchor of Allen University’s three-story red brick Chappelle Administration Building.

When GMK began the first phase of cleanup eight years ago, pigeons had taken roost inside the building at 1530 Harden Street, Simons said. Fast forward to June 24, hours before hundreds of people filed into the auditorium for a rousing rededication ceremony. Simons stood listening to Joyce Haynes, a 2016 Allen graduate, practice a vocal solo while accompanied by a brand-new, state-of-the-art organ, given to the school by Bishop Richard F. Norris.

“You had her singing, and you had it all decorated,” Simons said. “I talked to the bishop and saw how happy he was. … It was definitely a labor of love. I’ve been involved with it for eight years. I know that building probably as well as I know my own home at this point.”

Hundreds of people attended the June 24 rededication of Chappelle Auditorium. Built in 1925 at a cost of $165,000, Chappelle was designed by John Anderson Lankford, known as the “dean of black architects” and the official architect of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the denomination that founded Allen. The 7,300-square-foot building’s 700-seat capacity made it a spacious, secure place for African Americans to gather in the early 1900s.

In 1947, the Rev. James Hinton, president of the S.C. conference of the NAACP, held rallies there to end segregation. Rev. Joseph A. DeLaine took Hinton’s words as a call to action that became part of the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision. African American luminaries from Langston Hughes to Mary McLeod Bethune to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.  to Muhammad Ali took the Chappelle stage, but the building fell into disrepair over the years.

“There were a bunch of major leaks in the roof, and at some point the ceiling caved in,” Simons said. “The building was in pretty bad shape.”

In 2009, Allen secured a $1 million federal stimulus grant to kickstart the renovations. Aerospace giant Boeing contributed $250,000, then another $100,000 in memory of state Sen. Rev. Clementa Pinckney, an Allen graduate who was killed in the Charleston church shooting.

GMK designed new mechanical, electrical and fire protection systems for the auditorium and restored the interior and the exterior of the building.

Phase I, with work performed by Columbia-based Structioneers Inc., included storm drainage and parking work, limited interior demolition and exterior renovations.  Wood window frames were restored in place, while doors were recreated by local craftsmen working off remnants of an existing door found at the site.

Half of the original tin ceiling tiles were restored, with others recreated to match. A craftsman hand-glazed each one. Wainscoting was hand-sanded to remove layer upon layer of paint.

Phase II completed interior renovations and work on the mechanical and electrical infrastructure.

“The majority of what’s there is either what was there originally or what was created from the exact material,” Simons said. “This building is a landmark building on the list of historic places. We wanted to try to make things as close to what they originally were as possible.”

Work done with federal money was subject to Department of the Interior approval.

“You can’t use power tools to remove mortar from joints in the brick,” Simons said. “All that has to be done by hand so you don’t damage the brick. (Workers) had to use a certain type of sand and mixture so it would match mortar used in the 20s. We went through extraordinary efforts to try to restore this building to try to make it exactly the way we found it.”

Simons was struck by the intricate relationship between multiple materials, from cast iron to clay, in the auditorium’s original design.

“Every structural system that was being used around that time was all incorporated into the construction of this building,” he said. “You can just see the time, effort and money and just everything that the university poured into getting this building built back in the 20s.”

Last month’s rededication of the auditorium also included the opening of Allen’s Center for the Performing Arts, named in honor of Bishop Norris. The celebration featured remarks from state Sen. James Clyburn and Allen president Lady June Cole, a jazz medley played by Norris’ son on the organ and a rousing closing rendition of “Oh Happy Day.”

“I can’t think of a word to describe it,” Cole said. “It was phenomenal, just seeing the people in the seats and knowing that we are back up and running again.”

None of the celebrants noticed the underlying bones of the renovation, such as the three huge air handlers in the attic, the hidden sprinkler pipes, or the chilled water lines crisscrossing the building. That gave Simons the most satisfaction in a job in which he takes personal pride.

“The most difficult and complex part of the whole process was just bringing those modern systems into the building and trying to hide that stuff in a way that didn’t detract from the historic features,” he said. “We really wanted the historic structure to sing. We really wanted it to be the primary focus.

“To me, it’s an amazing structure, and I’m just happy to have the opportunity to be involved with it.”

Contact staff writer Melinda Waldrop at 803-726-7543.


Contact Melinda Waldrop at 803-726-7542.

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