Renovation as an art form

August 01, 2004|by CANDICE BOSELY

MARTINSBURG, W.VA. - Karl Krachenberg slides the glass door and then the metal collapsible gate shut. With his left hand, he pushes down a handle that makes the Otis 1915 No. 2 elevator descend smoothly and quietly from the third to the first floor.

Although the elevator has shuttled an untold number of people from floor to floor of the new site of The Arts Centre, its days as a people mover are numbered.

Modern regulations care little for romanticism, and the elevator simply isn't up to snuff when it comes to fire and handicapped-accessibility codes.


"Everybody is upset to hear that about the old elevator," said Krachenberg, education programmer for The Arts Centre. "It's a fine old elevator, but it's not really safe."

Removing the elevator and a surrounding stairwell will add between 2,200 and 2,500 square feet to the old building, which from 1895 to 1999 served as a federal building, including a courtroom and post office. It most recently was quarters for the Federal Aviation Administration.

Site work and interior renovations will be done before the building will open, expected sometime in 2006, said Hoy Shingleton, president of The Arts Centre's board of directors.

Krachenberg believes the building will be a creative nexus.

"I'm just hoping creative people want to come in and hang out and shoot the bull," he said. "I see it as a laboratory for art education."

Transforming the center

While giving a tour of the building, Krachenberg starts on the main floor. Evidence of the Young Artists' Summer Workshop abounds, including colorful kites, 3-D figures made from old milk jugs and watercolors.

Once finished, The Arts Centre will host art activities and classes for anyone "5 to 105 years old," Shingleton said.

Classes now are limited only to what can be done on the first floor, since a fire marshal said the upper floors cannot be used. With only one stairwell currently in place, a fire could prove dangerous.

Contrasting the artwork are clues the government once occupied the building.

Dropped fluorescent lights hang from the high ceiling.

A walk-in vault now is used to hold children's lunches. A sign on the vault door warns people not to close it; Krachenberg said he does not have the combination needed to reopen it.

The showpiece of the second floor is the old federal courtroom. The judge's bench is gone, but a dozen gray desks remain lined up.

Anyone who wants the desks - which, collectively, likely weigh a ton or more - is welcome to them, Krachenberg said.

A round red wheel in the hallway marks where a fire hose once hung. Toilets are enclosed by airy wooden stalls with slatted doors.

Glass windows that have a 109-year-old waviness to them offer endless views of the city's rooftops and hills beyond.

The second and third floors will be used as classrooms, while the former courtroom could be used as a studio, a small chamber for recitals or a media center, Krachenberg said.

Offices will occupy the fourth floor.

Elegant wooden flooring, trim and cabinetry are in place throughout.

High and low

A small staircase leads from the fourth floor to the attic, which boasts exposed beams and trusses. That space could be used for an artist-in-residence, but may have to hold part of a required forced-air system, Krachenberg said.

Things get even more interesting below ground.

"This is our gloriously creepy basement," Krachenberg said as he descends a dark, narrow set of steps.

With that unmistakable basement smell lingering, Krachenberg points out where a darkroom and clay facility one day will be located.

He then moves into a soundproof room with an interior window that, unfortunately for conspiracy theorists, is not a one-way mirror. Krachenberg already has heard the jokes that this is where government "interrogations" once took place.

Next door is a room straight out of an old mental hospital movie. It contains two white iron beds with hard mattresses and yellowed sheets. Off one wall is a tiny room, no larger than 3 feet square, that has a bench and nothing else in it.

Across the hall is the massive equipment needed to power the elevator, adorned by faded "Danger Exposed Electrical Circuit" signs. A sharp odor is in the air.

"Eighty-five-year-old electricity. That's what you're smelling," Krachenberg said.

'A real renaissance'

Site work improvements, such as paving and rebuilding a retaining wall, likely will begin later this year, Shingleton said. Construction drawings should be finished in a couple of months.

Once funding is secured, bids will be solicited to complete the rest of the needed construction work. GWWO, an architectural firm in Baltimore, is overseeing the project.

For the most part, the old building, including its slate roof, oak doors, brass hardware and copper gutters, is in good shape, Shingleton said. Some repointing is needed on the bricks, and window frames will be repainted.

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