When Mercer University was awarded a $425,000 grant from ArtPlace America to convert a historic church into a theater, one of the key requirements was to create something for the entire community.
When the new Tattnall Square Center for the Arts opens Monday, it’s a safe bet that Mercer and its partners in the venture will have hit the mark.
Not only will the former Tattnall Square Presbyterian Church serve as the new home for the university’s theater department, it also will serve as a community venue for theater, meetings, performances and lectures.
Lake Lambert, dean of Mercer’s College of Liberal Arts, said the church was donated to the university with an eye toward preserving it and giving it a new purpose.
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“It was hoped that we might be able to renovate it and not have it as a blight on the community,” Lambert said. “We envisioned having a theater there and to be a resource for the arts in Macon.”
The renovation has taken about 18 months and cost roughly $2 million, but Mercer was able to offset some of the renovation costs with the ArtPlace America grant as well as smaller grants and donations. In addition, Mercer partnered with the Historic Macon Foundation, which helped secure federal historic tax credits for the project.
Historic Macon’s annual Patron Party will be the first event held at the center, said Ethiel Garlington, the foundation’s executive director. The party is open to all Historic Macon members at the patron level or higher.
“From our perspective, it’s one of the better reuses of historic property in Macon,” he said. “We found a compatible use for it. It’s become one of the city’s icons once again and an asset for the local arts. ... (The party will) show off a new, finished property and demonstrates that we have even more momentum in the Beall’s Hill and Mercer area.
“We’ve added an amenity to the whole community.”
Jonathan Harwell-Dye, spokesman for the Macon Arts Alliance, said the center could add to the revitalized area surrounding Mercer, which includes Mercer Village and improvements to Tattnall Square Park.
“That’s the great thing about that facility. They took a church that was not being used and turned it into a great facility for that area,” he said. “You’ll be able to walk through the park (from the center) to Mercer Village to eat, or walk to the center to take in a show. It’s an entirely different feeling for that area. We’re happy to help with that project.”
Harwell-Dye said the alliance already is encouraging its member organizations to consider using the center for events.
In addition, Lambert said the facility will be open to any anyone who wants to rent it for a large gathering.
“We’re looking at it as a possible venue during Bragg Jam, especially because it takes place in the summer,” Lambert said. “It will be wide open to use in the summer, and with the Macon Film Festival now partnering with Bragg Jam, it could be used for that.”
THEATER DEPARTMENT GROWTH
The biggest beneficiary for the new center, though, will be Mercer’s Department of Communication and Theatre Arts, which will now be consolidated under one roof and have a performance space that’s easily accessible, said Scot Mann, an associate professor in the department who will serve as the center’s director.
“It’s a great space,” he said. “For one thing, it’s much more accessible to the community than where we were on campus. It also puts the entire department together. Before, we were spread out.”
The department’s first performance in the new space will be William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” scheduled for April. But while the center has its own “black box” performance area in what used to be the main sanctuary of the church, Mann said the department also plans to have productions outdoors in Tattnall Square Park.
“We plan to do outdoor theater in the park,” Mann said. “Where (the center) is located will make that plan a possibility.”
One unexpected bonus with the move, Mann said, was that many photos and other artifacts in the program’s history were discovered during the moving process.
Though the building has retained its historic feel, it also contains modern classrooms and larger offices for faculty members.
Mann said typically the department averages 10 theater majors and roughly another 15 students who are minoring in the subject. With the new facility, Mann said those numbers could double in the next couple of years.
“This will probably make us grow so much more as a department.”
Given the university’s recent athletic achievements and successes in other parts of the campus, Mann said he’s happy to see Mercer investing in its arts programs.
“It’s a different direction for the Mercer experience,” he said. “(The building) confirms Mercer’s commitment to the arts and makes it easier to do our job.”
To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.