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Sunday, May 3, 2009

Douglass Auditorium: Please Take Your Seats!

A miracle has happened..

After being told for weeks that all of the remaining seats from the Douglass Auditorium were pulled out, destroyed and taken away to the landfill..

We have seats from the now-demolished auditorium.

The seats were accidently discovered, after the news came that no more seats were available.

Back in February, 122 seats were removed from the Douglass Auditorium and installed at John Sevier Middle School at the school's request. Those seats are there now in the Sevier Auditorium. The request, and seat removal that followed, was reminiscent of the wholesale confiscation of items throughout the Douglass School, that occurred when the school closed in 1966. A lot of hurt feelings were left in the Riverview Community after other city schools came in and simply took what Douglass equipment they wanted, much of that reportedly in the faces of upset former Douglass students and teachers.

In March, the Douglass Alumni Association Board of Trustees was asked to put in writing, anything the group wanted out of the soon-to-be-demolished Douglass Auditorium, part of the now V.O. Dobbins Jr. Community Center's upcoming renovation.

The single most requested item that came from almost every board member was seats from the auditorium, many of which at that time, were still bolted down to the auditorium floor, awaiting the hum of the demolition equipment.

"Those seats were very important to us," says Board Vice President Andra Watterson. "We saw a lot of activities on the stage from those seats. Our parents, uncles, aunts, cousins, friends, just the whole neighborhood.. everybody sat in those seats."

But a few days later, came the devastating news from the demolition company, that no more seats had been saved. A shaken Assistant City Manager for Development Chris McCartt said it was some of the worst news he'd ever gotten.

"I remember sitting by myself here in the office," says Mr. McCartt, shaking his head. "I had this sick feeling in my stomach.. of all the things that could have happened, 'why weren't we able to save some of those seats.' As a city development officer, I could have handled anything but that."

The news hit some Douglass alumni hard.

"We were hurt when we were told all the seats were destroyed," said Andra Watterson. "You promise us something and then you take it away."

"It was just devastating," said Board member and Treasurer Sandy Wilmer. "Nobody really knew what to think."

And then.. a miracle discovery.

Board Member Calvin Sneed, on a mission to move newly-discovered school books to a storage location and out of the path of the renovation work at the Dobbins Community Center offices, accidently stumbled onto about 30 discarded auditorium seats on the stage before it was torn down, underneath bricks, trash, wire, plaster and other debris from the auditorium bound for the landfill. "After the asbestos removal, I was going through the stage for one final look before the walls came down, and I saw a half-seat sticking out from under the debris on the back side near the auditorium side doors. It had been sawed in half, and as I stepped over stuff to get to it, I saw that it was still connected to a couple of good seats, buried all the bricks, plaster and debris."

"As I kept looking and pulling stuff back, I kept discovering more and more buried seats," Calvin says. "I started pulling them out, and of course, the dust, bricks and debris starting falling. After we were told no seats were left and I found seats buried under all that stuff, I was determined to pull out as many as I could find."

"You're kidding."

"You actually found some seats?"

Those were the first excited words from Chris McCartt, when told of the find. "Man, that's great," he said. "That's like getting an early Christmas. We were told by the demolition company that no seats were salvageable, that they were all gone. When the community has a special feeling for something and you see it slip through your fingers.. this was so close to their hearts."

"That's just fantastic," he said of the find. "Now, those seats will continue to tell the story of Douglass for years to come."

The discovered auditorium seats were moved and taken for safekeeping to the place where the newly-found Douglass schoolbooks are being stored. The Douglass Alumni Board of Trustees recently visited the storage location. Mouths dropped open in surprise at the find.

"When we went to the place and there were the seats," says Sandy Wilmer, "it was so good to see them. I was expecting to see the books because I knew we had those, but when I saw the seats, I was surprised and overwhelmed at the same time."

"Some people might wonder 'well what do you want with those seats anyway?' she says. "Those seats are pieces of history.. that I once sat in one and saw good programs on the stage. It makes me feel good to know they're not gone. History may be gone, but we've got a piece of it."

"Just unbelievable," says Board President Doug Releford, as he surveyed the seats. "We were all under the impression that the seats were all gone and destroyed and that was the end of it. Seeing the seats and the condition they're in, is a blessing in disguise that they're still available. I'm hoping we can find a place in the new building for them."

Sandy Wilmer expressed the same optimism for the seats' usage. "It makes me feel good to know they'll be used somewhere."

That was the question we also put to the city. What can the seats be used for?

"I know some of them will have a permanent home in the Douglass-Riverview Community Room," says Chris McCartt. "We definitely want some of them there. I also see some of them being utilized in other parts of the renovated building in the common areas, as resting places for folks waiting on someone who might be visiting one of the non-profit offices. We want people to know the historic significance of these seats, because they're a part of the school, the neighborhood, the people."


Calvin Sneed suggested that alumni be able to help the refinishing and refurbishing of the found seats, by dedicating a seat to a deceased Douglass alumnus. The dedication would include the purchase of a small memorial plaque in that person's name similar to the ones pictured here, to be mounted on the back of the seat, towards the top, that would read something like, "this chair dedicated in memory of..."

"We definitely need to have the idea of a plaque on the seat back with the building architects and interior designers," says Mr. McCartt. "That's a great idea, and keeps the historic significance of the seats alive for the folks who use them. Anybody who has never been inside Douglass School, nor knows the history of the school, would understand why the seats and the school heritage is so important to the community. It also gives alumni a way to honor their own."

"I hadn't thought about a small dedication plague.. that is a good idea," says Doug Releford. "In one of the city meetings I went to, they were talking about green spaces in the renovated building, benches out in the hallways and breezeways.. obviously they'd already heard about the suggestion. I think the auditorium seats would be an enhancement to the building and have them dedicated in memory to a loved one who was a Douglass alumnus."

"I'm just really glad that you found them."

"I'm just tickled to death," says Chris McCartt. "Again, it's just like the Christmas present you didn't know was behind the tree. You're the hero in this thing. I'm trying to tell as many people as I can about this find."

"Those seats are like family heirlooms that you pass down," says Sandy Wilmer.

"I think God meant for us to have them, and the other items we asked for."

EDITOR'S NOTE: The Douglass Alumni Board had also requested the blue curtains from the auditorium stage, the lighting fixtures, the historic bell from the front side of the balcony, and the spiral staircase located off the stage. To date, the front curtain banner is the only other confirmed item saved, and is in safekeeping right now. Efforts are underway to identify and confirm the existence of, and the safety of, the other items.