By Andra Bryan Stefanoni
PITTSBURG, Kan. —
At one time, Pittsburg State University had a performance space large enough and grand enough to attract the likes of Duke Ellington, Vincent Price, John Denver, Steve Martin, the St. Louis Symphony and Ralph Nader.
Built in 1919, Carney Hall was the cultural and social hub of the both the university and the community, longtime residents say. But in 1978, deterioration and severe settling forced the university to condemn the building.
The 3,000-seat auditorium was razed in 1980 to make way for Heckert-Wells Hall, the sciences building, which opened in 1984.
“At the same time they were tearing down Carney, we were already talking about what was going to replace it,” said PSU Registrar Debbie Greve.
What will replace it will be a $30 million Center for the Arts, for which a ceremonial groundbreaking was held Friday morning in John Lance Arena, just north of the construction site on the northeast corner of Homer and Ford streets.
The center will feature a 1,100-seat main performance hall with adjustable acoustical elements, a stage, an orchestra pit and technical spaces. It will include 250 seats in a theater with a flexible layout, a 2,000-square-foot art gallery and work space for artists; and a 3,000-square-foot, multiuse rehearsal space for large musical groups.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Greve said.
So long, in fact, that Orville Brill, former dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, admitted there was a moment where he wasn’t sure if the campus would ever have another large venue for concerts and lectures.
“As often happens, though, Gorillas find a way,” noted Kathleen Flannery, executive director of University Development, during the ceremony.
The ceremony paid tribute to the legions of those who worked to make the center a reality, including some 500 donors, and featured an indoor “dirt turning” with soil in a cart on wheels. It was attended by city officials, members of the Kansas Board of Regents, university supporters from the community, and students, faculty and staff.
Student Government Association President Lara Ismert described it as “one of the most historic days in PSU history.” She noted that the student body pledged nearly a quarter of the construction costs — $7 million — although many of the students won’t be here when the center opens.
“It’s because we believe in this university and we want to see it thrive for the next generation of Gorillas,” she said. “In order for this to happen, our university must have a dedicated facility where students can learn about and experience art in all of its forms.”
She anticipates national Broadway touring companies, chart-topping artists and politically challenging activists one day performing there.
PSU President Steve Scott commended an as-yet anonymous donor, whose gift of $10 million ignited other donors and “made us believe we could get it done.”
Funding also came from the Walton Family Charitable Support Foundation, which last March made a $5 million donation in honor of Scott’s brother, H. Lee Scott, the former CEO and president of Wal-Mart Stores Inc.
Steve Scott also paid tribute to faculty, department chairs and deans of the College of Arts and Sciences who “helped keep the dream alive.”
Kansas Board of Regents Chairman Tim Emert said he believes the relationship between the community and PSU is unique among all other Regents institutions, and said the center “makes a strong statement that the arts are alive and thriving” in Southeast Kansas.
Emert, who also serves as president of the William Inge Festival Foundation in Independence, Kan., which celebrates the internationally noted playwright, said the arts enhance all areas of education.
“Whether it be the power of an orchestra, the joy of a comedic performance or the simple beauty of a sculpture, the arts serve to feed our hearts and stimulate our minds,” he said. “Today’s groundbreaking is a strong statement that the arts are alive and thriving in this beautiful corner of Kansas.”
Kevin Hamilton, who was among the numerous private donors recognized during the ceremony, said afterward he wished his father, Pete Hamilton, longtime chairman of the Department of Communications and known as being the “voice of the Gorillas” at athletic events, were alive to see it.
An emotional Brill, who retired in 2007, said after the ceremony that he regretted once making a statement about doubting such a center would ever become reality.
“I immediately realized that it showed a lack of appreciation for the hard work and conscientious efforts being made by administrators and other colleagues who were involved in identifying support and resources for the center,” he said. “That it is finally happening after all this time demonstrates what a long, involved and difficult task this has been. What a blessing it will be for our students and citizens for decades to come.”
Role of arts
The arts played a significant role in the ceremony, with the PSU Trumpet Ensemble, under the direction of Todd Hastings, performing “Kansas” and “Voluntary,” and the PSU Choir, under the direction of Susan Marchant, performing “Let the River Run.”