CLAYTON -- Ten years ago, a group of pioneering individuals began discussing how to transform two dilapidated school buildings into a town center and a venue for the arts. Now, the people who spurred the renaissance of Clayton are celebrating the 10-year anniversary of the Clayton Center with a gala and inviting the community who helped make the project possible.
The gala will take place December 1 and will feature cocktails, dancing, dinner, and live music.
The walls tell a story
The two old school buildings on East Second Street, where the Clayton Center is now, were built in 1920 and were last in use as schools in 1997, according to Clayton spokeswoman Stacy Beard. After four years of planning and construction, the Clayton Center was birthed on New Year’s Eve 2002.
Before they were revitalized, the buildings were in bad shape. Clayton Town Manager Steve Biggs said he remembers when he was about to start his current job and drove past the old schools.
“Before I took the job, I took my wife up and we looked around the town and when we rode by the school, she said, ‘You’re not taking this job!’ But I said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ve already checked it out, this is the last year it’s going to operate!’”
The buildings had to be boarded up and were vandalized and filled with birds.
“I remember the first tour we did down in the basement of the high school building and it was ankle deep in water,” said Biggs.
Now, the Clayton Center is home to the Town Hall chambers, located where the old high school gymnasium was.
“That’s where we’ll be dancing,” said Lyn Austin, one of the organizers of the gala. The Central Park Band will be playing as part of the special night.
The building that is now the performing arts center was once the elementary school auditorium. “The 17-inch-wide seats used in the kid’s auditorium had to be changed to 21-inch-seats,” laughed architect John Reece, who helped launch the project.
Grammy and Tony Award winning artists including Colin Hay, Doc Watson, and the Harlem Gospel Choir have performed on the stage in the auditorium. Jim Witter and his band will play there at the gala. His performance "The Long and Winding Road" will include music from Paul McCartney and John Lennon.
‘Right people at the right time’
Lyn Austin was one of the original organizers of the project and the cultural arts chair for the Clayton Center. Her husband and former state senator Jesse Austin was a student at the Clayton Elementary School when he was a young boy.
“This is a stellar example of a public-private partnership,” said Austin. The whole project cost $8 million. The community raised $2 million.
“It wasn’t just Clayton natives who supported the project, even people who were new to Clayton wanted to save these buildings,” said Austin. “Everybody had an old school somewhere that had been torn down and this was their chance to save it.”
She said there were many obstacles to building the Clayton Center, but the desire to make the project happen was greater than any obstacle presented. The Town was behind the project 100 percent, she said.
“In your lifetime, you’re lucky if you work on a project like this,” said Austin.
“Our goal at the time was to take a very old body and give it a new soul,” said Reece, the architect. The sun-flooded lobby where visitors now peruse artwork on the walls, and gather before performances in the auditorium was once the dirt space between the elementary school and the high school. It was Reece’s idea to connect the two. The design would allow for a lobby, and also for a handicapped-accessible entry.
“That lobby has become a real community gift,” said Reece. The town now features artists of the month in the space. Wedding receptions, and parties are held in the lobby area as well.
“Never in a million years would I have thought it’d be used for those kinds of things,” said Reece.
Reality also has exceeded expectations for the Center’s first Executive Director, Scotty Eliot. He came on to the project about six months before the Clayton Center opened and was responsible for helping put together the opening night performance. He helped bring big acts to the stage, the likes of which Clayton hadn’t seen before there was the proper venue for them.
“I started with the angle of let’s bring them professional entertainment…let them see the possibilities from the first night,” said Eliot. He brought in a group that customized a show for the opening night. They wrote songs with lyrics about Clayton’s history, and put together a show written just for Clayton.
Eliot is no longer in the arts and culture business but for that part of his life, working with entertainment and cultural arts, he said that being a part of the opening of the Clayton Center will be the best thing he’s ever done.
“It was truly a coming together of the right people at the right time,” said Eliot.
To buy a ticket to the 10-year anniversary gala, visit theclaytoncenter.com.