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A New Leaf

Project:The Prizery Community Arts Center, South Boston, VA

Architects: Hanbury Evans Wright Vlattas + Company, Norfolk, VA; Greg Rutledge, project architect

By Eve M. Kahn

The Prizery – it sounds like a place where treasure is kept. It actually refers to tobacco-industry buildings where machines pressed out the leaves' juice before the drying stage. But in South Boston, VA, near the North Carolina border, a former prizery does in fact contain treasure: state-of-the-art facilities for theatrical productions, studio-arts demonstrations, performing-arts classes and tobacco-heritage displays. This treasure has extended its reach beyond the building, has is also fueling the revitalization of the community. Other facilities are moving into the area, the unemployment rate is down and tourism spending has increased since the restoration of the building.

What makes these resources even more precious, in a sparsely populated region called Old Southside, is that the sprawling rooms are lined with salvaged artifacts and historic fabric. From the heart-pine floors to the ceiling-mounted old elevator gears, the Prizery is a hardworking, revitalized museum piece.

"We wanted to keep the 'wow' factor of the 14-ft.-tall open spaces with columns running down the middle," explains Greg Rutledge, project architect at Hanbury Evans Wright Vlattas + Company, the Norfolk, VA, firm that oversaw the building's $6.5-million metamorphosis. "Not a single new wall touches those columns throughout the building, no wall goes to the ceiling, and the mechanicals are exposed. You see the beams and the wood subfloor above. The hard surfaces are very resonant, so when people walk in, they realize things are really happening here."

The ca. 1907 Prizery is the crown jewel of a neighborhood officially called the South Boston Historic Tobacco Warehouse District. A dozen other vast brick buildings are nearby, including one that has been taken over by the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center, a consortium of colleges. "The Prizery is the most richly detailed of the group, the most pristine, and the only one with a tower," notes Chris Jones, the arts center's executive director.

The whole district bustled a century ago, sending tens of millions of tons of tobacco to market. Tobacco festival parades were led by the likes of Clark Gable. The town supplied 90 percent of the world's tobacco seed, and produced the first bagged, granulated smoking tobacco. (The local brand, Bull Doze, was later sold to a North Carolina outfit and famously re-christened Bull Durham.) When the industry died after World War II, other major regional employers – including textile and chocolate makers – went with it.

In the early 1990s, some local entrepreneurs developed plans to convert the vacant Prizery into housing, but then realized the numbers wouldn't crunch. In 1996, they donated the building to an eager nonprofit called the Community Arts Center Foundation, which first held performances at the Prizery in 1997 – despite holes in the roof and no heat. "We have a very tenacious core group," Jones explains. "And our blind faith carried us through."

Hanbury Evans originally devised a 10-year, six-phase restoration plan. "But then we figured out that preservation tax credits could practically fund it all at once," says Rutledge. Financing also came from the city, the county and private donors. Checks were sometimes written as soon as Jones or Rutledge gave benefactors a tour. "It's everybody's favorite warehouse in South Boston," the architect explains. "Even in its raw state, it was amazing."

The structure had been engineered to support rows of 1,000-pound hogshead barrels. So even while partially roofless, it held up well. "We only had to create a few flitch beams where timbers were water-damaged," Rutledge notes, "and almost all of the 150 windows and their panes were salvageable."

Still, he adds, he proceeded with great caution while reconfiguring the 38,000-sq.ft. interior. "Early on, we decided to nestle a theater with a raked floor into the body of the building, and leave the third floor open for banquets. But the structure is like Tinkertoys: you can't take out any one piece without shoring up all around it. So we threaded 60-ft. trusses for the theater through the building; we crane-hoisted them into an open window, rolled them through on dollies, and hoisted them up on jacks. Only then did we dare start dismantling the timber structure."

Sawn-out timbers were recycled as supports for the theater's new back-of-house, a ground-floor ell added on the exact footprint of a long-demolished boiler room. More timbers were preserved to frame the proscenium arch. Neoprene pads, a spring-mounted ceiling, a floating floor and double-layered drywall keep the theater acoustically cocooned from the banquet hall, offices, classrooms, meeting rooms and galleries. These spaces are full of salvage, too: elevator pulleys, cables, and gears, plus heart-pine boards taken from a nearby linen mill that FEMA had condemned due to the flooding of the Dan River.

The restoration of the Prizery has been a major instrument in transforming the character of the area. Statistics from the Travel Industry Association for the Virginia Tourism Corp. show that spending by travelers in the county increased by nine percent from $29.88 million in 2004 to $32.7 million in 2005.

In addition, the unemployment rate has dropped from about 11 percent in 1996 to under six percent in 2006. This growth has encouraged others to come to the area. At least two new major projects, a major hotel chain and Founder's College, with its hotel/conference center, have been announced.

On any given day, the Prizery's packed agenda might include a middle-school theater performance, a lecture about a Revolutionary War battle on the Dan River, dance classes for preschoolers from across the county, an historical society meeting or a potter's demonstration of working with Dan River clay. The facility, in fact, could use some more room; plans are afoot to convert part of the tower stairs into another studio. The foundation is also eyeing an empty factory next door, which once produced drawstring bags for tobacco.

"We get a lot of visits from people who are looking for role models, for ways to reuse the abandoned warehouses in their towns," Jones says. "We get all these wonderful 'oohs' and 'aahs' when anyone walks in for the first time. Photos don't convey the energy you find here, you have to see it for yourself." So if you're traveling near the Virginia/North Carolina border, plan to stop by. See for driving directions. TB

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