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Blog

College of Charleston set to embark on a $50M renovation of major campus building

Mez Joseph

The College of Charleston’s Albert Simons Center for the Arts will undergo extensive renovations beginning in the spring of 2020. Brad Nettles/Staff - Brad Nettles bnettles@postandcourier.com

By Adam Parker aparker@postandcourier.com
The Post & Courier
Aug 18, 2019

The College of Charleston’s Albert Simons Center, home to the School of the Arts, will undergo a $50 million makeover next year.

What will the final product look like? No one knows. 

The team at Liollio Architecture has been reconceiving the interior of the 80,000-square-foot Simons Center for a few years now, but no clear exterior designs have been produced yet “because there’s no agreement on what outside should look like,” said Valerie Morris, dean of the School of the Arts.

A few broad concepts are clear: The building needs a better main entrance and lobby; it needs to complement the adjacent Marion and Wayland H. Cato Jr. Center for the Arts, which opened in 2010; and it needs to fit into the campus aesthetic.

Incoming freshmen at the College of Charleston visit the Albert Simons Center for the Arts on Monday, August 12, 2019. The building, located on St. Philips Street, soon will be getting a makeover. Brad Nettles/Staff - Brad Nettles bnettles@postandcourier.com

The modern red brick building on St. Philips Street sits at the end of a campus thoroughfare and is highly visible. The new design should acknowledge the need to create a welcoming front door and public space, and to connect with adjacent buildings, said Liollio lead architect Jennifer Charzewski.

“We want a design that celebrates the creativity of the arts,” she said.

When the College of Charleston’s Albert Simons Center was built 40 years ago, around 800 students made use of the building. Today, that number is more like 5,000.

The availability of the building’s performance venues helped convince Gian Carlo Menotti in the mid-1970s to locate Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston. As a result, the Simons Center quickly became “one of the primary places the public interacts with the college,” Charzewski said.

The building’s renovation has been a long time in the making. 

In 1994, the college introduced plans to upgrade the School of the Arts facilities and engaged architect Robert Stern to oversee the effort.

He conceived a neoclassical structure to match Randolph Hall across the street, but the Board of Architectural Review wanted something more modern, recalled Morris, the school’s dean. Then, residents of the neighborhood and others insisted on Stern’s approach. In the end, the college engaged Stevens & Wilkinson, which operated out of Columbia, to complete the $27 million project.

By then costs had gone up, so officials divided the School of the Arts renovation effort into two projects. The Simons Center would have to wait for the completion of another big renovation project: the $80 million Rita Liddy Hollings Science Center and Physicians Auditorium.

But all’s well that ends well, Morris said. The Joint Bond Review Committee late last month approved the plan to finance the renovation project with $45 million in proceeds from the issuance of academic and Administrative Facilities bonds. Another $5 million will come from nonrecurring state appropriations, revenues from college fees and, mostly, capital project institutional funds.

A woman makes her way down the second floor hallway of the College of Charleston’s Albert Simons Center for the Arts on Monday, August 12, 2019. Brad Nettles/Staff - Brad Nettles bnettles@postandcourier.com

Student fees and tuition are not expected to go up because of the project, according to the college, although the Capital Improvement Fee, which is derived from a portion of tuition, has been increased three times in the last five years, from $781 per student per semester to $878 per student per semester.

Morris said she expects to move out of the Simons Center next summer and use the Harbor Walk buildings near the S.C. Aquarium for administrative offices, classrooms and more. The Chapel Theatre on Calhoun Street, Sottile Theatre on George Street and local church sanctuaries will provide performance space while the three Simons Center venues are shut down.

(Meanwhile, the Sottile Theatre is also undergoing renovation. It closed in February for $4.7 million in stage upgrades, and is slated to reopen in time for the 2020 Spoleto Festival.)

The revised interior of the Simons Center will include a new black box theater, state-of-the-art classrooms and upgraded infrastructure components such as bathrooms, HVAC and power stations. Heating and cooling problems will be resolved, along with the mold issue, Morris said.

Charzewski said the project also will upgrade mechanical and electrical systems while incorporating sustainable energy and flood protection. 

The renovation, she said, will change the face of the St. Philip Street corridor. Liollio is partnering on the renovation with Minneapolis-based HGA Architects, which specializes in arts, education and civic projects.

The courtyard at the College of Charleston’s Albert Simons Center for the Arts fronts St. Philip Street and likely will be transformed by the upcoming renovation project led by Liollio Architects. Brad Nettles/Staff - Brad Nettles bnettles@postandcourier.com

Rodney Lee Rogers, an adjunct theater professor, said the new black box theater — a small, square performance space — will provide welcomed flexibility. The smaller, malleable venue will enable students to rehearse more easily, to experiment and to stage their own plays, Rogers said. 

“I think a black box for training is the most versatile kind of set-up you can have,” he said. “You can do a lot of things quickly ... and it’s more about performance.”

It’s great to have the Sottile Theatre and access to other big stages in town, but that’s not what students need most, Rogers said.

“For most actors, they’re going to be cutting their teeth in more adaptive smaller spaces, because they’re not going to get into the bigger spaces for a while.”

Currently, the Simons Center is about 80,000 square feet, Charzewski said. The project team will renovate 65,000 square feet, rebuild 15,000 square feet and add 10,000 square feet.

The third and final state-level review conducted by the State Fiscal and Accountability Authority on Aug. 13 was the last hurdle cleared, she said. The city’s Board of Architectural Review will have a chance to scrutinize the plans.

The work likely will begin in the summer of 2020 with the temporary relocation of the art school, followed by a groundbreaking in the fall of 2020, according to Paul Patrick, chief of staff to the president. School officials hope the project will be finished in time for the 2022-23 academic year.

Meanwhile, the College of Charleston will consider other pressing capital projects, President Andrew Hsu said. A campus that’s 250 years old needs constant attention, he noted.