Former Macon church to serve as Mercer’s theater department, community arts center

hgoodridge@macon.comMay 20, 2013 

Tattnall Square Presbyterian Church had a good run in Macon -- and now it’s preparing for act two.

For nearly 120 years, the former church at the corner of College and Oglethorpe streets played an integral role saving souls of community members. It’s only fitting that the community is now saving the old church.

Mercer University President Bill Underwood announced Monday that the church is being rehabbed and will serve as a community theater, as well as home to the college’s theater department. The center will be named Tattnall Square Center for the Arts.

“This wonderful structure has served our community. ... It’s important this structure remain a part of our community and not go into decay or decline,” Underwood said standing at a podium in the former pulpit under the high-arched wooden ceiling.

Much of the wood in the historic building was gathered by the Rev. S.L. Morris, the church’s pastor when it opened Sept. 1, 1890. Morris traveled to lumber yards around Macon and neighboring towns gathering wood for the sanctuary, often paying for it with his preaching.

The church had an active congregation until June 2009, when it was closed after its membership dwindled to six or eight members.

The Flint River Presbytery donated the building to Mercer after the church closed.

Paul Luthman, an executive at the Albany-based Presbytery, said Tattnall Square Presbyterian Church has now truly come full circle. Before moving to the corner of College and Oglethorpe streets, the church was located in a chapel on Mercer’s campus.

Ceiling problems, asbestos issues, a very old central air conditioning unit and a decaying ceiling, among other issues, made the current structure too costly for the Presbytery to maintain.

“I give President Underwood a lot of credit,” Luthman said. “When we donated the building (to Mercer), he (Underwood) said ‘We can’t afford to do this, but we can’t afford not to do this.’ ”

Mercer received a $425,000 grant from ArtPlace America to help fund the restoration. Mercer was one of 54 ArtsPlace grant recipients out of 1,200 from around the country.

“What a great day it is for the arts in the College Hill Corridor and Macon,” said Beverly Blake, program director for the Knight Foundation in Macon. The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation is one of many national organizations that fund ArtPlace.

“We believe the ArtPlace grant ... will build on the momentum to revitalize the College Hill Corridor. I can’t wait to see the first show,” Blake said.

As important as the building will be in housing Mercer’s theater department, it will also be availabile to community groups and organizations.

Some of the groups that assisted Mercer in applying for the grant and creating a vision for the planned arts center include Macon Arts Alliance, Macon Arts Round Table, College Hill Corridor Commission, Macon Film Guild and Hayiya Dance Theatre.

“We are very excited that through this project the arts will further strengthen the relationship between Mercer and the Macon-Bibb community,” Lake Lambert, dean of Mercer’s College of Liberal Arts, said Monday to members of local media and community leaders gathered inside the former church.

“First, it will literally relocate Mercer theater in the community,” he said, “moving us down the street into more accessible space, a more diverse space and a more attractive space for both Mercer students and Macon residents to be a part of the thoughtful and even avant-garde theater productions that the university offers. ... By bringing community arts to this facility and our expanding campus in the College Hill Corridor, this project will make downtown an even more exciting place to work, play and reside and our Mercer students will be able to learn from and enjoy the vibrant and growing arts community in Macon.”

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