Ellen Dressler Moryl is carrying a large sculpture of beaded African artwork through the tiny, polygonal City Gallery at the Dock Street Theatre. She stops, catching her breath and looking around her. Through one door, the manicured, carpeted temple of the theatre lobby and box office is littered with boxes, awash in shadow. Through another, the brick-and-ivy courtyard throws off afternoon sunlight like a prism. The room is empty now, devoid of any of the myriad works that have hung on its walls over the decades or the Spoleto celebs who've trod its floors. Right there, flutist Paula Robeson and cellist Charles Lange once rehearsed Bach's Brandenburg Concertos prior to a festival chamber music concert while Moryl pretended to work. Over there's where playwright Arthur Miller asked to use her phone. Then there was the time Yo Yo Ma and Kenneth Cooper wanted to borrow Moryl's sheet music to the Gamba Suites for their concert rehearsal. There are scores of such anecdotes, she says.
Moryl gathers herself and starts for the door, one of innumerable such trips she'll make today. After nearly 30 years of residence within the labyrinthine brickwork hive that houses the Dock Street Theatre, she's relocating the City Office of Cultural Affairs and its 10 department members and part-time staffers to the First Citizens Bank Building at Meeting and Market streets while the historic structure undergoes a top-to-bottom renovation and restoration. And there's no guarantee she'll be back.
OCA is one of the last tenants to leave the building. Julian Wiles and Charleston Stage Company decamped months ago to a new Mt. Pleasant administrative office, where they'll wait out the estimated 28-month overhaul and program their two new theatre series in the Sottile and the American. Dock Street Theatre manager Christopher Parham will supervise Cultural Affairs' move this week, then abandon the site himself for a less glamorous office at another city-owned facility, Gaillard Auditorium, a little like trading in a vintage Bentley for a VW bus.
"It's not that I don't love the auditorium — even though I'm giving up my lovely office with two huge windows for a windowless conference room," he says with forced cheer. "But I want to be back here."
Parham has been one of the few closely involved in planning for the theatre's long-overdue renovation, which is being handled by the City's Department of Parks. The project has been in the works for years, he acknowledges, and the results are going to be transformative. But that doesn't mean the moment hasn't arrived without some wistfulness on the residents' part.
"The Dock Street is a special place for me," he says. "But it's also a special place for most Charlestonians. People have an attachment to it; it deserves preserving not just because it's a historic landmark but because it means so much to so many people. Charleston is a haven for the arts, and this theatre is a big reason for that."
More than three decades ago, when Gian Carlo Menotti visited Charleston in his search for a sister city to host an American counterpart to his Spoleto Festival in Italy, the Dock Street was a deciding factor for the composer. At the time, the Office of Cultural Affairs was part of the now-defunct Department of Leisure Services, which also encompassed the Parks Department and Recreation Department, all packed like sausages into the Hampton Park cottage that's now home to Parks.
"I learned there was a vacant space in the Dock Street," Moryl recalls. "And so I put together a proposal to the Mayor and City Council for creating a little arts office there with a gallery, which I suggested could be the municipal interface between the Mayor's office and Spoleto and the arts community. And they said go for it."
In short order Moryl created an intimate gallery space in the building's south ground-floor room and had the bricked-over doorway between it and the theatre lobby permanently unsealed. The first show in the newly christened City Gallery at the Dock Street Theatre took place in spring 1978 during the second Spoleto Festival, an exhibition of works by Linda Fantuzzo and Manning Williams — who as it happens were honored with another dual show at the Gibbes Museum just last year. In the 29 years since, the gallery's hosted between 10-12 exhibits annually. Moryl estimates her office has helped curate nearly 350 shows there.
"We've always tried to present young, aspiring, hardworking artists who wouldn't otherwise have access to a gallery space. And a lot of those artists feel that they got to the next level in their career paths because of the exposure they got here."
For the moment, the City Gallery is taking up temporary residence in the Gaillard Auditorium lobby, though only until September. After that, Moryl's hoping to have a more appropriate "high traffic" home where they can host the monthly exhibits and receptions until the gallery reacquaints itself with its refurbished digs in the Dock Street.
Although the building is all but empty now, a firm date for the renovation's start is still up in the air. Parks Dept. official Carl Tarpley is negotiating that detail and others about the project with low-bid winners NBM Construction Co., the local contractor who'll be handling all aspects of the $9 million job. Right now, all Tarpley can say is that it'll begin before the end of the summer.
"It's a historic landmark, and it's a major renovation," he says. "We're going to be creating a handicap-accessible facility. We're introducing elevators to meet accessibility requirements. We're seismically hardening the facility to bring it up to standard. We're replacing outdated electrical and mechanical work and all the plumbing systems throughout the facility. We're also restoring all the interior finishes. And," he adds as casually as he might mention the weather, "we're also replacing the roof."
Bottom-sensitive patrons are advised to keep their expectations for the Dock Street's famously uncomfortable wooden pews low, as it were.
"People hate those seats," Parham concedes with a laugh. "But there are preservation issues. They're going to do their best to make them as comfortable as they can."
"We're aware of the patrons' needs for improved seating comfort," Tarpley says. "They'll be restored but left largely the same. We can't change the historic nature of the seating."
No, God forbid.
The City expects the job to take around 28 months, Tarpley says. "But the start date is going to determine the end date." In any event, it's unlikely that Julian Wiles and company will be back in the building for Charleston Stage's 2009-10 season. And Spoleto Festival USA isn't waiting around, either; they're sinking $xx million into refurbishing Memminger Auditorium as a semi-permanent substitute.
For her part, Moryl doesn't know if OCA will ever be back in its old third-floor offices at the theatre, with their spectacular views of French Quarter rooftops, churches, horse-drawn carriages, and palmetto fronds.
"We think that whatever happens with this renovation will be the right thing. If it means we can come back, so much the better. But if not, we'll still run the gallery and we'll be fine elsewhere," she says, a lump swelling in her throat. "This is America's iconic theatre, and we were here for 30 years. It was pretty special."