Workers restoring gleam to faded Slagle Auditorium

When Slagle Auditorium first opened, it was considered a fantastic facility.

That was 85 years ago. Time has started to catch up with the once proud facilities.

Workers have been busy since last year, however, restoring the gleam that's faded in Slagle Auditorium due to time and heavy use over the years.

The auditorium is getting a facelift and will be ready to open its doors again in the 2010 fall semester.

"After 85 years, I think Slagle had lost its luster," said USD Vice President of Finance and Administration Rich Van Den Hul. "Now, the students, community and visitors have another place for the next 75 years, and with improved acoustics, lighting and seating will help make it an even better venue for performances."

Slagle hasn't had must work done to it since it was built in the 1920s. The building's auditorium has been closed since the spring of 2009 and so far, everything is going as expected in order for it to reopen in fall of 2010.

However, everything is running as expected because of an adjusted timetable.

Welfl Construction is in charge of the renovation, but the project had to wait because they were in charge of the stair tower project to Paradee Hall, which ran late.

"That project had to be done first, and it ran late and we had to make sure it got done," said Cathy Wagner, USD's director of planning and construction. "At this point, that's the only thing holding it back."

Besides the one setback, Wagner said the renovation is coming along well and that there have been a few unexpected things happen, but nothing big enough to move back the date of completion.

The auditorium's ceiling posed a bit of a challenge to planners and the contractor.

"The biggest one was the ceiling because from the ground level, it looks like plaster, but it's softer and was made out of something like horse hair," Wagner said. "We reevaluated and it's something not even the experts prepared for and all the documentation we had for it was that it was plaster."

This summer is the likely completion time of the auditorium's reconstruction. Once that is accomplished, technical crews will devote their attention to the auditorium's audio system. The organ will be installed, and the workers will make improvements to Slagle's chandeliers.

Total cost of the improvements is an estimated $8.1 million, to be paid, in part, by Higher Education Facility funds.

The university has received about $3.6 million for the Slagle renovation and the USD Foundation is also raising $18,000 in order to repair and restore the 10 chandeliers.

"This is a great example of using both sources in order to get a needed project done," Van Den Hul said. "The gift funds were crucial to getting this project done."

The chandeliers weren't originally slated to be a part of the project, but the USD Foundation approached Van Den Hul for fundraising opportunities and came up with the idea to improve them.

Last year, the Foundation's project was to replace the windows in the Danforth Chapel, which Van Den Hul calls a great success.

"This year, the chandeliers seemed like a great idea and something they could raise the money for in one year," Van Den Hul said.

The university also received $700,000 in gifts in order to restore the organ, which is being worked on right now.

According to the Dean of the College of Fine Arts Dr. Larry Schou, Ernest M. Skinner, an important builder of that musical instrument during that time period, constructed the organ in 1925-26.

The organ is one of five or six of its kind that hasn't been altered.

The historical instrument was the first thing taken of Slagle Auditorium before construction began so that it wouldn't be harmed by dust. Schantz Organ Company in Orrville, OH is currently restoring it.

The organ will be cleaned and since it was never officially finished, the rest of the pipes are also being added.

"It will be nice to get to the rest of the pipes," Schou said. "They won't change the sound of the pipes. They will also clean it, because there is 80 years of dirt in it, and updating the wiring which was starting to wear out."

Schou just isn't excited about the renovations currently being made to the organ, but also for all of the improvements being accomplished to improve the Slagle facility. He is planning to bring some major acts to the renovated auditorium.

"We are really excited to be in the room again, and it's going to be more attractive and comfortable for the audience," he said. "Performance wise, it will be more attractive for theater performance and concerts."

Some of the groups Schou is hoping to schedule are the South Dakota symphony orchestra, musicals and silent movies with improved sound played by the band.

Since the Fine Arts department has not had access to Slagle Auditorium for over a year, it has been using Wayne S. Knutson Theater, the Vermillion High School and area churches.

However, Wayne S. Knutson wasn't made for many musical performances.

"Knutson is more for spoken words because it's a drier room," Schou said. "For music, you want a more resonate room that blends with the music."

Schou and the College of Fine Arts did have a good amount of input of what would be done to Slagle Auditorium, Wagner said.

"We tried to work with what they needed," she said. "We did include lecture options, but Fine Arts was main focus."

Some of the major changes include the stage jutting six to eight feet further into the room, motorized curtains and the ability to change the acoustics according to the events.

The lobby will also be bigger and side lobbies have also been added, which Schou said will make it easier to get into the building.

There will be new seating, but in order to keep a historical feeling to the building, some of the old seating will still be intact on the balcony.

Schou said the audience will notice a huge difference.

"It's going to be great; several steps above what it was," Schou said with a smile. "The rock hard chairs were not pleasant, and the sound wasn't projected out too well."

Other new features include more bathrooms and air conditioning.

So far, nothing is planned to take place in Slagle because it's not completed, but Wagner is working monthly with the events planner.

"We don't know yet what the first thing will be that will take place in it," she said. "It could possibly be the Neuharth event."

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