The old Lowry-Chesson Building in downtown Elizabeth City had stood shuttered and vacant since 2001.
But in 2009, the three-story structure that once served as an opera house and then a flagship department store was once again brought to life – this time as the Arts of the Albemarle Center, commonly known as The Center.
A $3.2 million renovation of the historic 1897 structure culminated when The Center opened the 10,000-square-foot Jaquelin Jenkins art gallery on the first floor and the 230-seat Maguire Theatre on the second floor. The third floor includes the theater’s balcony, a reception area and art classrooms.
“People walk into The Center these days and are impressed with what this entire building has to offer,” says Lisa Whitlow, who retired in 2009 as Arts of the Albemarle executive director and was instrumental in the organization’s acquisition and renovation of The Center. “It used to be that art classes in Elizabeth City were held in one building, theater productions were staged in another building, and concerts took place at other sites. It is gratifying to now have so many artistic-related events and attractions all under one roof, especially in such a beautiful facility.”
Arts of the Albemarle is a nonprofit organization originally founded in 1969 as Pasquotank Arts Council. Grants, corporate donations, membership dues and art gallery sales fund the AOA.
“Raising $3.2 million in grants and private donations for us to purchase the Lowry-Chesson Building and then renovate it was quite impressive, and it just goes to show how influential the arts are in this community,” Whitlow says. “For example, we have always had works from nearly 300 artists, craftsmen and photographers in our on-site gallery, and the gallery always accounts for about $130,000 in art sales each year. That annual amount is remarkable, but it’s just commonplace around here.”
George Jackson, president of the AOA board of directors, says The Center enhances the quality of life for everyone who lives in Elizabeth City.
“We can now stage top theatrical productions and have as good an art gallery as you could expect to find in a community of our size,” he says. “In addition, the building is acting as somewhat of a stimulus tool for downtown. The gallery has increased foot traffic along Main Street, and there are always faces in the gallery that I don’t recognize whenever I visit. That means out-of-town tourists are frequenting The Center and spending dollars in Elizabeth City.”
Jackson adds that having a showpiece such as The Center might attract more businesses to Elizabeth City because companies are interested in enhancing the quality of life for their employees.
“Our city has an arts center, a top-flight museum, a planetarium, and we will hopefully be expanding our Port Discover hands-on kids’ science center within the next year or so,” he says. “A future goal for Elizabeth City is to have enough critical mass to become a one-day type of attraction in itself. We are gradually getting there, and opening The Center was certainly an important step toward reaching that goal.”
Read more about how Elizabeth City, NC celebrates the arts.