At Allen University, a historic stage is set to come to life again

Allen University William S. “Bill” Robinson, vice president of Title III and sponsored programs, is overseeing the renovation of Chappelle Auditorium, built in 1925 at Allen University.
Allen University William S. “Bill” Robinson, vice president of Title III and sponsored programs, is overseeing the renovation of Chappelle Auditorium, built in 1925 at Allen University.

Michael Dennis scraped away the last gritty layers of paint on the curved balcony of Chappelle Auditorium, slowly filing away decades of decorative colors to return to the original pine wood.

“This type of work is tedious,” he acknowledged, as he bore down on the grooved places where stubborn paint flecks still clung. “It’s work, but there is nothing wrong with that.”

For craftsmen like Dennis who are involved in the $3 million interior renovation of the historic 1925 Allen University building, the joy comes later, when the dusty wood paneling, ornate bannisters and heart pine floors are stained and polished to a glowing finish and performers once more occupy the Chappelle stage.

“I love watching these old buildings come to life,” said Dennis, an employee of Brebner Custom Painting and Restoration Co. “It is more fun to watch a building go back to what it was meant to be.”

Renovations should be finished at the end of 2015. By spring 2016, the 7,300-square-foot auditorium on the historically black campus will be open to the public, providing the city with yet another space for concerts and public addresses.

A historical legacy

There will be echoes of history when the newest crop of performers and speakers take the stage. Chappelle has been the scene of appearances by the great soprano Leontyne Price, the poet Langston Hughes, blues singer Brooks Benton, and the actor Peter Brock, who played the falsely accused Tom Robinson in the movie, “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

In 1947, the Rev. James Hinton, president of the S.C. conference of the NAACP, rallied black South Carolinians there to find a way out of segregation. In the Chapelle audience, the Rev. Joseph A DeLaine took Hinton’s words to heart, went back to his Clarendon County community and launched a movement that became part of the historic Brown v. Board Supreme Court decision that overturned the doctrine of separate but equal schools.

In the years following, African-American leaders from Martin Luther King to Muhammad Ali, Mary McLeod Bethune to Roy Wilkins have spoken from the Chappelle auditorium, which anchors the three-story classical red brick Chappelle Administration Building at 1530 Harden St.

Annie S. Hollis, who came to Allen as a professor in 1959 and participated in student demonstrations to desegregate the city’s lunch counters, remembered King’s visit to the campus. With limited accommodations for black travelers in Columbia, King and his civil rights colleague and friend, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, stayed on campus in a faculty apartment just upstairs from hers, she recalled.

“This was during the time of the marches; it it had to be in ‘61 or ‘62,” she said Monday. “This was when the Allen students were in jail and arrested and Dr. King came after the fact. I remember him speaking to the students trying to keep everybody calm. He was really a very charismatic person.”

That legacy is not far from the minds of Allen officials who were able to secure a $1 million federal stimulus grant in 2009 to first launch the exterior renovation of the building.

The building, part of what is known as the Allen Historic District, was named in honor of African Methodist Episcopal Bishop William D. Chappelle, an Allen president, and is one of 20 historically black college structures marked for preservation by the U.S. Department of the Interior.

To proceed with interior renovation, the private historically black college has received $1.8 million in funding from the U.S. Department of Education and the state education department, $250,000 from the aerospace giant Boeing and $100,000 from SCANA Corp. The school needs to raise about $1 million in additional dollars.

“This was priority No. 1 to get done,” said William S. “Bill” Robinson, Allen’s vice president of Title III and sponsored programs.

Robinson is overseeing the project for Allen and has explored the inner workings of the auditorium nearly as much as Larry Register, project manager for GMK Associates Inc., the architecture, engineering, design-build and construction services firm that won the renovation contract and stripped the building down to its essentials.

GMK also did the exterior brick work on Chappelle funded by the U.S. Interior Department grant. The State Historic Preservation Office has reviewed and approved the work as well, said Elizabeth Johnson, deputy state historic preservation officer.

Gateway to African-American neighborhood

Designed by the architect John Anderson Lankford, who is known as the dean of black architects, Chappelle was begun in 1922 and finished in 1925 at a cost of $165,000. Langford was the official architect of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and his imprint is on dozens of church buildings throughout the South and West, including the original Bethel AME Church in downtown Columbia.

Allen University, founded in 1870, was the first school established after the Civil War by the AME denomination and bears the name of the church’s founder, Richard Allen.

“If there is one (school) you are going to look after, it ought to be this one,” said Robinson, who now routinely takes visitors and alumni on tours that meander from the basement that once housed the school’s cafeteria to the attic that is now home to a state-of-the-art HVAC system.

The former cafeteria and kitchen will be transformed into an arts gallery that will tell the history of Chappelle as well as provide space for changing artist exhibitions. Robinson has enlisted Allen student interns to unearth some of that history.

Robin Waites, executive director of Historic Columbia. said Chappelle is one of only five buildings in Columbia that carries the designation of a National Historic Landmark. And because it sits at the juncture of an important African-American community, it will be a treasure for the city.

“It’s at the cusp of the Waverly community, so it’s a great entry point into that neighborhood as well,” she said.

When Chappelle opens again, those who remember sitting in chapel or walking across the stage at graduation will return to a transformed space, with gleaming wood paneled walls, seating for 550 spectators on the main floor and in the balcony, and a restored floor.

When visitors look up they and Ryan will see something familiar – the ceiling’s tin panels and the grand chandelier. Those tin panels looked to be unsalvagable when they were first taken down, but Register dipped them in a cleaning solution and found they emerged free of rust. They will be painted white and reinstalled.

Although the chandelier is not original to the building, graduates and others in the community from the 1950s onward remember it and wanted it to be preserved.

Register, the project manager, had the chandelier taken down when work first began on the auditorium. After wrapping it carefully, he drove the 150-pound light fixture and its dozens of leaded crystal parts to Wilkes Barre, Pa., where it is being restored by Light Restore, a company owned by Bruce Kravitz that specializes in vintage and antique restorations.

When that iconic light fixture is hung and the building is finished, Register said, “It’s going to be amazing.”

Did you know...

The Chappelle Administration Building, which is home to Chappelle Auditorium, was listed in the the National Register of Historic Places on Dec. 8, 1976 and designated a National Historic Landmark on that same date.

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