New grind

The plan above was submitted by Scarpa + Pugh of Santa Monica, Calif., working with Eskew + Dumez + Ripple of New Orleans.

Some years back, Western Carolina University art professor Brenda Coates had a vision — not as impressive, perhaps, as the epiphany of St. Paul on the road to Damascus, but one that will bring Hendersonville to the forefront of regional cultural attractions.

She looked at the deserted Grey Hosiery Mill downtown, and saw a latent cultural behemoth.

So Coates met with Hendersonville’s city manager, Chris Carter, who also became a strong supporter of the vision. The two set to work. Coates researched the mill’s history, and began to survey Hendersonville’s government leaders and potential users. She analyzed other performance-art centers, forming a board of advisors to help her. And her enthusiasm ran outside the lines.

“We were drafted by Brenda,” quips board chair Sharon Alexander. Soon Coates had a group of interested supporters, and the Community Foundation of Henderson County, the City of Hendersonville, Hendersonville Symphony Orchestra, Belfry Players and anonymous donors gave funds to complete a comprehensive feasibility study. The Mill Project was off and running.

By 2002, the planning committee had incorporated into a nonprofit called The Old Mill Cultural Center, Inc., that later assumed the name The Mill Center for the Arts.

Today, thanks to a grant bestowed by the National Endowment for the Arts to fund an architectural competition to design the complex, Coates sits amid hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of awe-inspiring blueprints for the renovation of The Mill into her dream.

William McMinn, retired dean of the College of Architecture Art and Planning at Cornell University, was hired as professional advisor for the contest. Three top professionals were chosen as jurors, alongside three local residents. With proposals from Paris, Dublin, Toronto, San Juan, and some of the best known firms in the U.S., the range of ideas gives an enlightening overview of contemporary architecture today.

“Seventy applications were accepted,” reports McMinn, “and 58 top firms sent in submissions. Each firm did two site visits and carefully analyzed the site and the needs of the community.

“The quality of the work,” he says, “is outstanding.” Firms were required to submit two panels rendering their vision of the exterior structure, as well as floor plans — including a 1200-seat theater, a black box-style rehearsal space with seating for 350, an events hall that can be sectioned into meeting spaces for groups ranging from 50 to 500, a catering kitchen, a central box office, permanent space for the Arts Council of Henderson County and the Hendersonville Symphony Orchestra, and a new children’s museum and nonprofit leased space.

The hundred-or-so panels are currently displayed in the upper level of Hendersonville’s Home Trust Bank building, and Coates reports that 50 people a day are coming to look at them, choose their favorites and offer comments that will be forwarded to the jurors. “Most people stay for at least an hour, some as long as three hours, and many come back two or three times to study the plans,” she says.

There’s great variety here: A few designs are traditional, but most are the kind that could easily turn the old factory into a regional icon — bold lines signifying what juror Kenneth Youngblood refers to as “a new level, a new time.” Another juror, Merrill Elam from Atlanta, was impressed that a community the size of Hendersonville would take on such an ambitious project. And juror Ned Cramer, former executive editor of Architecture magazine and current director of the Chicago Architecture Foundation, commented that Hendersonville was filled with generous philanthropists. “The community should be complimented,” he said.

Alexander says the most satisfying part of her job has been being stopped by older people on the street — folks who tell her they want to live long enough to attend the first performance in the new theater, slated for 2008.

[Connie Bostic is an Asheville-based artist and writer. Her work is currently showing as part of Road in Sight: Contemporary Art in North Carolina at Duke University.]

The Mill Center for the Arts Architectural Competition Display will show at the Home Trust Bank building (228 6th Ave. East, 2nd Floor, in Hendersonville) through Thursday, Sept. 1. Hours are 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. The three finalists have been chosen, and on Friday, Sept. 9, there will be daylong presentations at the City Operations Plant (305 Williams St., in Hendersonville) by the three before the jury announces its final selection. Call 697-5700 for more information.

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