Furor subsides on Shepherd arts construction project

SHEPHERDSTOWN—The second phase of the new Center for Contemporary Arts project at Shepherd University is expected to be finished by the end of the semester, even as the controversy that surrounded the project three years ago has dissipated.

David Kemnitzer, an area historical building consultant and architect, said he rarely hears complaints about the buildings since the university released its full plans, and construction crews covered ‘unsightly conditions’ such as above-ground piping that was left exposed for a long time after the first phase of the project was completed.

The Shepherd University campus is awash in construction projects, including the building of a new arts facility, which is part of a joint venture between the university and the Contemporary American Theater Festival. Phase two of the project is on target to be finished by the end of the current academic semester.

“There were a lot of complaints about the building and how it didn’t fit in the town,” Kemnitzer said, adding many Shepherdstown residents believed that the modern appearance of the project, a joint venture between the university and the Contemporary American Theater Festival, would clash with the 19-century buildings of the town and campus.

Dow Benedict, the Dean of the university’s School of Arts and Humanities, said the first building in the project, which was completed three years ago, was never intended to be the final product visible from Duke Street.

“Coming through Shepherdstown, you wouldn’t have seen this building,” Benedict said.

He said the department needed an ‘appropriate’ visual arts building in phase one that was ìbasically a large warehouse — that aesthetically may not be pleasing to lots of people,” but noted that there will be parts of the building that are much more attractive as part of the second phase of development because it’s there the aesthetic elements for the exterior of the building will be given attention.

“We’re not trying to duplicate an 1800s building here, colonial with big white columns in front of it,” Benedict said, adding that phase two will feature a two-story glass entryway that will be seen from Duke Street.

The design for phase three of the project, which does not yet have a projected ground-breaking date, calls for glass and field stone, he said.

Benedict said that the opening of the phase two building will complete the longtime goal of moving the visual arts and theater programs out of the Frank Center. He said the purpose of moving into larger buildings is not to expand program offerings or increase the number of art students, but to improve the quality of existing programs and attract a higher caliber of student applicants.

“The schools that the art department competes with are — elite schools in the art world and when you compare facilities — we are lacking significantly from that,” he said. “While I will never, ever believe the quality of the program is dependent upon the facilities themselves, to be competitive in terms of attracting students, we really need to have facilities that look appropriate.”

He said the new buildings will also feature improved natural lighting, ventilation, electrical systems, and artistic equipment.

The new 200-seat studio theater in the phase two building will also enable the music department to take possession of the Frank Center, alleviating scheduling conflicts and allowing for more performances by both the music and theater departments.

The construction is part of a joint project between Shepherd and the Contemporary Arts Theater Festival, both of whom joined with other nonprofit organizations as part of a $26-million capital campaign to raise money for the construction projects.

CATF board member Jenny Allen said the new theater will provide improved access for disabled patrons and a larger lobby than the one in Sara Cree Hall, a former gymnasium.

“It will offer us a lot of program opportunities and will provide an especially comfortable and welcoming atmosphere for our patrons,” Allen said.

Having a new theater on campus and the addition of two more theaters, which are being proposed for phase three of the project, might lead CATF to consider adding a sixth performance to its summer repertoire, Allen said.

“The goal of six plays has been around for a long time,” she said. “Our first priority is to make sure we’re a good partner to the university and share in their mission and to make sure we’re putting on the best summer festival that we possibly can. With those things in mind, I think we have a very open mind to what other kinds of things we might add to our plays.”

Benedict said the additional theater space also opens up the possibility of CATF running during the regular academic year, as well as theater department programming taking place in the summer.

He said that the universityís partnership with CATF has been extremely important in making the planned construction project a reality, and noted he has heard from many contributors who were unconnected to the university but contributed to the capital campaign because of their interest in CATF.

Allen agreed.

“It gave our donors and our community a chance to see the strength of the partnership between the university and the festival, and investing in the bricks and mortar aspect of that partnership seemed like an appealing opportunity for a great number of donors.”

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