Mercer’s McDuffie Center relocating thanks to Woodruff grant

mstucka@macon.comNovember 9, 2012 

The Robert McDuffie Center for Strings at Mercer University will move to an iconic 18-pillared mansion on College Street by next fall, thanks to a large donation.

A $1.5 million grant from the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation will fund renovations to the historic Bell House at 315 College St. The property may be most widely known as the former site of the Beall’s 1860 restaurant in the 1980s and ’90s.

Robert McDuffie, a Macon native and one of the world’s leading violinists, said the classical musicians in the 26-student center yelled and screamed when they heard the news.

“We’re happy about the house,” McDuffie said Friday. “It’s wonderful on so many levels. It’s a tangible sign of success. We’ve reached a point where we now have a building that’s also a part of who we are. I’ve been coveting this building since I first arrived back here.”

The Woodruff grant will be used to renovate the antebellum house, built between 1860 and 1865 and for many years one of the finest homes in Macon. In recent years it has been used for commercial purposes. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972.

The renovation work will develop a salon on the first floor suitable for student concerts and student chamber music, capable of holding 60 to 70 people in the audience.

Most of the renovation work will focus on the second floor, where student practice spaces will be created in smaller rooms. Those rooms should be larger and have more flexible acoustics than current practice spaces, McDuffie said.

He said the net effect is to follow Macon’s extensive historic preservation and match it with a space that will wow prospective students.

“We’re taking one of these homes, really a stunningly beautiful place, and having beautiful music coming in with great artists who have come to Macon to realize their potential,” McDuffie said.

In a statement, Mercer President William D. Underwood said, “We are deeply grateful to the Woodruff Foundation leadership for funding this major endeavor of the university. The Woodruff Foundation is known for its support of arts and education, and with this grant Woodruff is helping Mercer advance one of its marquee academic initiatives, which is rapidly becoming the finest strings program in the world.”

The McDuffie Center’s growth spurred the need for a separate facility to house the program. The center has a limit of 26 students, who compete to use 16 practice rooms within the McCorkle Music Building at Mercer. The Townsend School of Music has a total of 125 students.

In the recent past, the Woodruff Foundation provided financial support to Mercer for the 230,000-square-foot University Center and more recently with construction of the university’s new Science and Engineering Building.

The Bell House, which has about 10,000 square feet, was gifted to the university four years ago by the Bell family of Savannah. The family donated the house for use by Mercer’s School of Engineering, from which Holmes Bell graduated in 2001.

Larry Brumley, senior vice president at Mercer, said design work on the building, led by Macon architect Gene Dunwody Jr., is already well under way.

Construction is expected to begin early next year and be complete in time for the fall students to use the building in August.

McDuffie said many of the best music conservatories have been hosted in historic houses.

“It’s just wonderful for me to have this happening in my hometown,” he said.

Writer Oby Brown contributed to this report. To contact writer Mike Stucka, call 744-4251.

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