Unbeknownst to most people who whiz by on College Street, the old Beall house is enjoying a renaissance that will soon begin to turn heads all over the world.
The 18 towering metal columns around the front likely glisten brighter now than when first installed by retired Confederate Capt. Samuel Dunlap in 1902.
He was recovering from wounds suffered in Gettysburg when he dramatically transformed the Italianate-style mansion of cotton plantation owner Nathan Beall. The house was completed in 1865, but Beall could not afford to keep it after the Civil War.
He started the building project a year before the fighting began.
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That year would be engraved in the memory of Maconites when the home became one of the city’s premiere restaurants in the 1970s, Beall’s 1860.
“I remember being nervous about not having enough money to pay for a date,” said internationally acclaimed violinist Robert McDuffie, a native son of the city.
When he returned home about a decade ago to found the Center for Strings that bears his name at Mercer University, the building caught his eye.
“I’ve been salivating over that place ever since I first came back to Macon,” McDuffie said in a recent telephone call from New York.
His new Macon studio now overlooks the Corinthian crowns of those massive columns. The house has become the center’s new conservatory, which includes a salon performance hall for up to about 70 people, classrooms, practice rooms and fine architecture.
“To say I’m excited is an understatement,” McDuffie said. “It is a great space where very talented artists from around the world will come. ... It is a facility commensurate with their talents.”
The building even has musical heritage. Its second owner, Leonidas Jordan, was the proprietor of the Academy of Music until his death in 1899.
Plus, the Allman Brothers Band used the house on the cover of their debut album in 1969.
Years after the restaurant closed, Mercer trustee Gus Bell bought the building as an investment and created office space.
In 2008, Bell donated the 10,000-square-foot building to Mercer’s School of Engineering in memory of his wife, Amanda Hancock Morris Bell, and in honor of his son’s 2001 Mercer engineering degree.
In November 2012, Mercer announced a $1.5 million grant from the Woodruff Foundation would pay to renovate the building into the new home for the Center for Strings.
“I feel like it’s the ideal building for the department of music,” Bell said Friday from his Savannah office of an engineering and architectural firm. “I’m happy to do it and Mercer means a lot to me.”
Work began to convert the upstairs into 13 practice rooms and teaching spaces, which about doubles the rehearsal capacity for the whole Townsend School of Music.
Each compartment was built as a room-inside-a-room for special acoustic insulation.
The floor rises in one hall as an indicator of the thickness of the sound barrier.
“The goal was to be sitting in one room and not hear the violin in the next space,” said project architect Gene Dunwody Jr. “We built each room separate, with several different types of material and eight layers of Sheetrock.”
An acclaimed acoustician was called in for the project, he said.
The design included a 5 percent angle skewing the walls to improve the sound.
“One of the contractors said, ‘This was the first time you let me get away with crooked walls,’” Dunwody said.
The Bell’s renovation saved the building, which had fallen into some disrepair during its restaurant years, he said.
Dunwody, who loves Mercer and is passionate about restoring old properties, saw the vision of his First Presbyterian Day schoolmate, McDuffie.
“The big, grand salon, we opened that up,” Dunwody said. “You feel like you’re in a space in the past, a grand old conservatory.”
But that doesn’t mean it is not state of the art.
Fiber optic wiring will allow for live instruction from any place in the world via large screen television mounted in a beautifully vaulted room off the salon.
Future broadcasts of live performances are also possible, similar to the Grand Mercer Christmas performed last year.
Securing historic tax credits doubled the renovation time, but students will begin using the space this week, said Amy Schwartz Moretti, director of the McDuffie Center.
On the second floor near practice rooms, they will find a lounge, large cabinets to store their instruments, another nook for relaxing at the top of the main staircase under the crests of more columns.
“You can definitely tell that’s new upstairs, but we tried to hold on to the original beauty down here,” Moretti said in the grand salon, which features a rug McDuffie shipped from Italy, the site of the Rome Chamber Music Festival he founded.
If Moretti were choosing a practice room other than her spacious, light blue office studio that backs up to the foyer, she would move upstairs next to an original fireplace they saved.
“I think it is a neat hallway,” she said.
The students will still have classes on main campus and there will still be concerts at Fickling Hall.
The center’s new furniture arrived last week and there will still be window treatments and other things to purchase, Moretti said, but the first performance will be Sept. 15 at 7:30 p.m.
“There’s a lot of history here,” said Moretti, who has heard people reminiscing about the old restaurant.
Dunwody remembers having to do the Heimlich maneuver on a friend about twice his size when they were eating dinner there before the prom.
Moretti envisions rocking chairs on the porch waving in the breeze as cars go by, beckoning people back into a beautiful piece of Greek Revival architecture.
“I want the community to embrace it, too, and want to come here and hear the concerts,” she said. “And for our neighbors on the street to come hear the music.”
McDuffie has spent years romanticizing about the building.
“Being a native of Macon, I’m very well aware of the historic preservation fervor and moving into a place like this taps into that very energetic part of Macon,” he said. “It’s going to be an amazing place for our students to come, study, learn and be inspired.”
To contact writer Liz Fabian, call 744-4303.