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New Union Center combines art, dance, theater

An old renovated builing houses a mesh of the arts

by Lauren Viera

Probably more often than you'd like to admit, you find yourself rambling down Main Street in downtown Oberlin. Perhaps to Dave's Army Store so you could pick up a pair of those $3.99 pants. Or maybe to the Fève (again), convinced that surely one more cup of coffee will keep you awake during your nine o'clock class.

39 South Main Street is now another spot to frequent. The building itself has a long history behind it, and its new purpose draws passersby with a variety of interests. With fine architecture and offerings in visual art, dance and theater, The New Union Center for the Arts has much to offer.

Set back slightly from its neighboring shops, the Victorian Gothic style building is introduced by a circular grassy area, a pleasant place in itself to visit. But inside, the energy simply pulses.

A faint smell of fresh plaster wafts in the hallway and immediately one is overcome with the excitement of newness: clean, white walls are illuminated by the spacious hallway and old-fashioned staircase leading to split levels. Admiring visitors step aside to make way for the parade of youngsters clamoring their way up the steps to a jazz class, and a familiar Mozart piano concerto drifts down from yet another annex where young adults practice ballet.

Most immediately, to the left of the entrance, lies the Firelands Association for the Visual Arts (FAVA), a noteworthy attraction for the artistic-minded Obie student. A whole new range of possibilities for an afternoon of artistic enrichment await in every direction, housed in a single building, too often overlooked.

"It was a big job," said FAVA's executive director, Betsy Manderen, of the Center's recent renovation. Built in 1873 by architect Walter Blythe, the building was initially erected as a state-of-the-art public school for Oberlin community school children, hence the school-like layout of the floor plan. In its 123-year existence, the building has also served as Oberlin High School, an Oberlin College classroom building, a storage facility and, most recently, the Co-Op Bookstore, prior to its current location.

The Center was taken under the wing of the Nord Family Foundation for renovation in recent years, after several instances of near demolition for other projects, and was unveiled to the public on June 21.

"It was definitely a major operation," Manderen said. "There's new heating and cooling systems, an elevator for handicapped accessibility, a new paint job, new dance floors in the studios... Everything is up to code."

In renovating the center, each of the companies was approached to ensure that each space was adequately designed for dance, gallery, music hall or other respective purpose, in top shape. "A lot of groups that had been in bad locations now have brand new facilities," Manderen said.

Regarding service to the public, classes in various genres of dance-ballet, jazz and modern-have just begun for the Fall semester, offered through the Phenix Dance Theatre. Starting at a $128 enrollment fee, the classes are provided by a highly professional company that has mapped a brief but growing history of successful works since its start at Lorain County Community College in 1992.

Past performances include "Earth Songs," "Honey on My Lips," "House in the Woods" and numerous smaller works; the company plans on showcasing The Nutcracker December 20, 21 and 22.

If you're just browsing through the Center, don't pass the FAVA without taking a peek. The gallery's third showcase, Artist's Marks, opens Sunday, with free admission. Featuring artists Myrna London Aidlin, Gwen Cooper, Mark Keffer and Wendy Collin Sorin, the display will highlight everything from simple drawing and writing pieces to acrylic painting and lithography with chine collé. All works are for sale.

"All of the groups in the building serve as attractions for each other," Manderen said. "We're hoping it will work as a sort of synergy." The comprehensive collection in the Center aspires to satisfy Oberlin's appetite for arts and invites individual discovery before the building assumes a new identity.


Copyright © 1996, The Oberlin Review.
Volume 125, Number 2 ; September 13, 1996

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