The Memminger Auditorium on Beaufain Street is undergoing the finishing touches of an enchanting $6 million renovation by Huff + Gooden Architects of Charleston. Built in 1939 by Albert Simons, the historic building features time-worn integrity without being historically precious. As such, the architects were invited to think outside the neoclassical box.
A contemporary elevator and staircase, both made of glass, open up the new side entrance. The transparency of the suspended glass staircase and elevator reveal the building's original layers of steel, brick, and stucco. These structural elements are welcomed into the formal equation, and our relationship with the façade becomes more open and tactile.
Similar intimacy is expressed in other parts of the interior. After removing concrete stairs to make way for the glass elevator, the architects left the stairs' indentation in the brick, giving the impression of an archaeological footprint.
"Where history and present come together, there should be some kind of moment architecturally or change in material that makes that recognizable," says principal architect, Mario Gooden during a tour of the building.
"New should be treated as new."
From the maple leaf red that coats the original interior columns to the new electric Prussian blue, these honest pairings enhance both classic and modern temperaments. Sleek textures contrast with organic ones. The result is a subtle balance of forms and palettes that will complement the range of operas, dance, and theater performances on their way to the auditorium this Spoleto season.
The ultimate challenge of the original Memminger was the small lobby space. That's how the outdoor lobby, or sculptural Lowcountry garden, became the focal point of the entire project, including the large addition to the side of the original building, the scene shop. It's the sculpture garden's backdrop.
The scene shop's scrim wall will soon be covered in jasmine, as if it were a magnified planter box. This will blend the shop into the landscape, so that it doesn't detract from the main feature — the old auditorium. But neither does the addition cower beside the theater's grand scale. Huff + Gooden matched proportion and mass, so that the shop lends an assertive quality to landscape space.
Blue light from the interior wall will pass through the scrim wall's hedge of jasmine — the effect will be the blue and green dance of nature. At the ground level, oval patches of native plants represent marsh islands.
In fact, the sculpture garden was a collaborative effort between architects Design Works (landscape architects) and artists from Spoleto's past.
"We wanted something unexpected but not intrusive," says Nigel Redden, general director of Spoleto Festival USA.
The metaphorical semblance of the sculpture garden is a fitting and accessible tribute for the neighborhood's past life as marsh land.
So why not just plant a row of marsh grass and call it a day?
Well, for the same reason that adding a columned addition would fall flat. Just as there is a studied effort behind effective minimalism, the sculpture garden is the result of linking together a melange of architectural influences — from Italian post-modernism to Japanese traditionalism.
Memminger's new designs articulate both a worldly and rooted identity for Charleston. As proven by Huff + Gooden, thoughtful architects can accentuate our traditional buildings. Their magic wand is yet to strike the front exterior of the auditorium, which is still painted white. In keeping with the firm's subtle style, white does have its merits, but the architects have considered coral tones as well.
Like good theater, Huff + Gooden's decisions are unpredictable.