Historic playhouse razed at Stephens

Monday, July 19, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 6:34 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

A trip down College Avenue by Stephens College on Friday gave travelers a different view of the campus. A cloud of dust rose steadily. Sitting atop a pile of splintered wood, large wooden trusses and faded orange theater seats was the source: A 35,000-pound hydraulic excavator was stripping down the red brick walls of one of the college’s oldest buildings.

Built in the late 1890s, Old South Auditorium had been used as the playhouse and theater until the mid-1980s, but it had not been used since. Sagging beams, a leaking roof and safety issues prompted the college’s decision to level the building, said Amy Gipson, a Stephens spokeswoman.

An engineering study had found that the auditorium, which had a historic interest, was mostly unsalvagable and that renovation would be more expensive than rebuilding, Gipson said.

Brett Prentiss, a theater professor for more than 30 years at Stephens, said the golden age for the auditorium was just after Maude Adams, who played the title role in “Peter Pan,” joined the drama department in 1937. Productions at Old South continued until the construction of Stephens’ Playhouse following World War II.

Tom Dillingham, a former professor at the college, snapped pictures while the excavator’s gigantic arm chipped away the two remaining walls.

He recalled watching a presentation of the play Beggar’s Opera in the early 1980s.

“I think it was one of the best (theaters) in terms of acoustics and general atmosphere,” Dillingham said.

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