Local venues prepare for Spoleto 

Saving Grace and Sottile

The final countdown to Spoleto has begun, and we're all gearing up in different ways. Festival organizers scramble around taking care of last-minute details. Artists and performers put the finishing touches on their acts. Writers bust their butts to make deadline. And even local buildings are getting gussied up in anticipation of the thousands of art lovers that will swarm the city in the next few weeks. Two venues in particular are ready for their close-ups after months of renovations: the Sottile Theatre and Grace Episcopal Church.

Located on George Street, the College of Charleston's Sottile Theatre has been a favorite festival venue for decades. Built in 1927, the space originally known as the Gloria Theatre has served both the college community and city residents alike. Sadly, the theater had gotten a little shabby in recent years and was in need of an upgrade.

The first step was fixing the theater's King Street marquee, which was badly damaged after being hit by a truck on the narrow street. In December 2010, it was replaced with a shiny new sign modeled after the original. After that, the work moved inside. According to Technical Director Jeremiah Lewis, the majority of the effort went into replastering one of the theater's two main walls. They completely tore out the old plaster that had been exposed to too much moisture and constructed a new air barrier, replastered one wall, and salvaged the other.

In the process, they discovered two murals underneath that they were able to save and plan to restore over the next few years. Other upgrades include new walkable lighting trusses in the front of the house, new trap doors onstage, and a fresh coat of paint on the interior walls.

"I think there's definitely going to be a decent amount of shock when you first walk in," Lewis says. If you plan on seeing the opera The Magic Flute, you'll be one of the first to experience the refurbished venue.

Farther down the peninsula, Grace Episcopal Church has been undergoing renovations for a much longer period of time. Home of the Intermezzi Series, the Wentworth Street church has been covered in scaffolding for the last several years. Workers reached a break in construction this spring, and the church is excited to enjoy the first scaffolding-free festival in years.

Originally built in 1846, the resilient church has survived the Civil War, an earthquake, hurricanes, and a major rebuilding project. But in 2006, parishioners started noticing a new threat. Cracks were forming in the building, and they soon discovered that the steeple was sinking faster than the sanctuary building. This led to the discovery of other significant structural problems, including bricks with crumbling mortar. Engineers initially expected to repair 25 percent of the walls, but they ending up having to do 100 percent. They thought the project would last 18 months, but it took more than three years. Funded by the parish, the project has cost more than $10 million, and it still has a ways to go. But for now, the renovations are on hiatus while a state-of-the-art system program monitors any movement in the building.

"I think everyone is very pleased to have the scaffolding down, because the scaffolding was not only on the outside, it was on the inside of the church, too," says Randall Robinson, former chairman of the Building Committee. "It went up through the ceiling. I think the parish is quite relieved to be taking this pause. Everyone seems to be using this time as a time to refresh their spiritual engines and focus for a while on the important things in the church, which is outreach to the community."

And with a fresh coat of paint on the front of the church reflecting its original hue, Grace is ready to show off for Spoleto. Robinson says it will be an altogether more comfortable experience than the last few years.

"I think the parish was remarkable in what they were willing to go through, because you had to walk through scaffolding to get to your seats and oftentimes there were leaks in the roof because there were holes in the roof, and the air conditioner didn't work as well because there were big gaping holes through the outside, and now all that is much, much better," Robinson says. "We're looking forward to an enjoyable season."

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