Since 2007, Charleston visitors hoping to see a show at the landmark Dock Street Theatre have been disappointed. They have had to be content to glimpse the façade’s lovely wrought-iron work peaking out from behind scaffolding and chain link barriers, all part of a multi-million dollar renovation project to preserve, restore and renew this historic building.
Thankfully, we don’t have to wait any longer to enjoy this landmark theater. Dock Street Theatre opened to the public again in March.
The original Dock Street Theatre was built in 1736, the first theater built in the American Colonies. It stood on the same patch of land as the modern-day Dock Street. Over the next decade, a series of theaters were built in the immediate vicinity, but by the end of the 18th century, all were demolished or in disrepair. In 1809, hotelier Alexander Calder built The Calder House Hotel, later the Planter’s Hotel, and around 1835, a stage and auditorium were added. But eventually, the property became unsafe and was abandoned.
It remained so for 50 years until, in 1935, with funding from Franklin Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration, the building was restored in the ornate, Georgian style of the 18th century, reinforcing its connection to the original theater, and from 1937-2007, Dock Street was in continual operation as a working, professional theater.
But, after 70 years of service, the theater was starting to show its age. While some of the changes have been cosmetic, "We are most excited about the things the audience will not see but will greatly enhance our productions there," said Julian Wiles, Artistic Director of Charleston Stage, a theater company that has been in residence at the Dock Street since 1978. "We have a new fly system with options to fly more scenery in and out than ever before."
The 1930s plumbing and electrical system has been replaced to meet the demands of a modern theater, and soundproofing will keep Church Street noise from intruding on performances. Safety concerns were addressed by reinforcing the building’s structure to prevent damage in an earthquake or hurricane.
The main goal of the renovation was to preserve the historic feel of the theater while bringing the structure into the 21st Century. Indeed, the new improvements blend seamlessly with the character of the building. A state-of-the-art lighting grid now hangs above the stage, but architectural features cleverly shield the cords and wires from the audience’s view. Similarly, a high-tech sound system and modern venting system are hidden within the architectural detail of the elegant ceiling.
Comfort and accessibility also were important considerations in the remodel. Before the renovation, there were several parts of the building that were inaccessible to the disabled. Now the theater is equipped with three elevators and seating that can be removed to accommodate wheelchairs. Also receiving a much-needed makeover is the famously uncomfortable, original seating. The look of the wooden pews remains, but seat and back cushions mercifully have been added.
Thanks to the work of local artisans, it is the attention to detail that makes the improved Dock Street so lush and inviting. The carved wooden brackets, missing from the Church Street façade for years, have been replicated and reinstalled, cypress paneling and woodwork have been refurbished and upstairs the 18th Century fireplace surrounds, brought from a local mansion during the 1930’s remodel, have been restored.
The building itself is certainly magnificent, but the best way to appreciate the Dock Street’s unique ambiance is as an audience member. This spring, Dock Street will once again serve as one of the main venues for the Spoleto Festival. Flora, the first opera performed in America (at the original Dock Street) will serve to reopen the theater. Also as part of Spoleto, Dock Street will host the renowned Gate Theatre of Ireland, who will present Noel Coward’s Present Laughter. The festival’s daily chamber music series also will move home to the Dock Street. In the fall, Charleston Stage will be back in residence. Its 2010-11 season has been announced and some highlights include the musical Hairspray and a stunningly theatrical adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps.
The Dock Street Theatre is located on 135 Church Street, at the intersection of Queen and Church Streets (“Dock Street” officially became “Queen Street” in 1734). The theater is open daily for self-guided tours. Call to confirm opening times at (843) 720-3968,
You can visit www.spoletousa.org for schedule and ticket information for The Spoleto Festival, running May 28-June 13, and information on Charleston Stage’s upcoming season can be found at www.charlestonstage.com or at 843-577-5967.