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Cupids, Gargoyles and Naked Bricks

Why does Charlotte insist on destroying its history?



If you've spent all your life in Charlotte, you could be forgiven if a puzzled look crossed your face when someone described an artwork or a building as having "a Cupid" or, perhaps even more blasphemously, "Cupids." With his signature bow and famously devastating arrows, Cupid is the god of love in Roman mythology, a slightly remodeled Eros from the Greek pantheon.

Surely, Cupid isn't a thing to be spoken of as an inanimate object like a table. Whether or not he's granted full fellowship among the gods, he's a one-and-only, no more a plural than if you spoke of Jesuses or Venuses, right? Wrong. For over the centuries, artists and architects turned Cupid and his goatish uncle Pan into declasse gods through sheer proliferation. Go to the Broadway theater district — or the Metropolitan Museum — and you'll understand why a native New Yorker can take these cliche ornaments for granted.

Not in Charlotte, where Cupids and Pans are nearly as rare as medieval gargoyles. We lack the preservation impulse here, preferring to demolish things that begin to look old — because the knee-jerk notion of the New South only runs skin-deep. Or so it seems when our city fathers make the big decisions about our city's destiny. Even if it bears the city's name, a coliseum in Charlotte will not last decades, let alone centuries or millennia.

I was reminded of Charlotte's preservation aversion when I took in the Boston Early Music Festival last spring as part of the Music Critics of North America's annual meeting. Interiors at the New England Conservatory's Jordan Hall, where we saw Charpentier's Descente d'Orphee aux Enfers, and at the Cutler Majestic Theatre, where we admired Handel's Almira, were unabashedly old-fashioned and rococo.

Nor were the ancient icons restricted to old, musty, artsy places. The gateway to a funky alley, leading to the City Place food court in the Massachusetts Transportation Building, was topped by the masks of comedy and tragedy, flanked by more than enough lyres to outfit all the Muses. Evidently, the idea up yonder is that if you have a past, link to it once in a while instead of studiously destroying it.

That preservation impulse was evoked once again six weeks ago when my wife Sue and I made our pilgrimage to see Frank Langella at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in the Chichester Festival Theatre production of King Lear. Langella wasn't performing at BAM's main building, an edifice that echoes the Treasury Building in DC, but at the Harvey Theatre, which opened as the Majestic Theater in 1904.

Looking at the exterior of this building — or Boston's Majestic, for that matter — you wouldn't think the place was special. Both are gussied up by signage and entrance makeovers, but the real magic is inside.

Unlike the Boston venues, the Harvey isn't a full-blown restoration. As a result, we encountered a quirky combination of old-time elegance and funky ruination. The lobby and the stairway conjured up the original Brooklyn Majestic with its marble, tile, gilded banisters and carpeting. But although the moldings were quite evident inside the theater, the walls lay totally exposed down to the naked bricks and mortar.

Orchestra seats were comfortable. Latecomers could watch Langella on a TV monitor until Scene 2. The primitive set design couldn't mesh more perfectly with the funky brickwork, and the stage outfittings were sophisticated enough to pour down rain on Langella when he challenged the winds and hurricanoes.

Exactly what we should be doing with Carolina Theatre, I couldn't help thinking. Or as Sue put it, "If this was Charlotte, they would have torn it down years ago."

As it did when our leaders tore down the Charlotte Coliseum, as it does again and again at Carolina Theatre and Eastland Mall, the questions recur: What are they doing? Are they thinking at all?

If Chiquita Banana wanted to make the Eastland Mall site their new HQ, does anyone believe our City Council would balk at cleaning it up — or that they wouldn't prostitute themselves by showering them with more incentives? Even today? Much better than having artists who have a real stake in the city settling in there with a movie studio!

Artists also wanted to retool Carolina Theatre as a music hall. So naturally, NC Music Factory's plan to renovate the place as an entertainment destination, fronted by a new commercial building, was rejected by City Council. Instead, we're going with the "place of civic engagement" idea proposed by Michael Marsicano and the Foundation for the Carolinas. The Foundation has spent the robust amount of $1 to buy the property from the city.

Anybody know what happens at a place of civic engagement? Me neither, but Bank of America has chipped in $5 million for the renovation, 20 percent of the current estimate for the project's final cost.

Next questions: Does anybody really believe that this $25 million makeover will come in under budget — or that Charlotte won't wind up paying that dollar back with millions more tossed in?

If you do, I've got a bridge I can sell you for an incredible price. In Brooklyn.

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