Big show gives glimpse of what renovations could do for Asheville’s Thomas Wolfe Auditorium

Jason Sandford

Jason Sandford is a reporter, writer, blogger and photographer interested in all things Asheville.

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thomas_wolfe_auditorium_stage_2015This weekend’s concert featuring a Grammy Award-winning pianist and the Asheville Symphony Orchestra offers a glimpse at what renovation work could do to improve the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium.

The photo above, from the symphony’s page of Facebook, shows a built-out stage, which thrusts the Asheville Symphony Orchestra and pianist Emanuel Ax into much closer proximity with an adoring audience. It’s a temporary build-out, but it serves as a great example of what could be at the venerable venue.

City of Asheville officials are moving forward with significant renovations to Thomas Wolfe Auditorium, a 75-year-old facility that has been a stalwart venue on the city’s scene. The renovations could include structural updates as well as an update to the auditorium’s acoustic capabilities. The work is aimed at improving conditions for the symphony orchestra.

The renovations – and the attendant fundraising to pay for them – will put the center in competition for dollars with the Asheville Area Center for the the Performing Arts. The performing arts center has been a dream of some local arts supporters for a decade, and city officials initially supported it by offering up city-owned property as a potential location.

But plans for the new performing arts center have been significantly scaled back, and the proposal now is to essentially build a performing arts center that’s on scale with the Thomas Wolfe – both are about 2,000 seats and both aim to specifically provide the Asheville Symphony with a suitable place to perform. Despite the “play nice” public statements of both sides, these two plans are in competition with one another for cash support – including taxpayers’ dollars (your money), in my view.

Chris Corl, director of the US Cellular Center, told me recently that the Asheville Civic Center Commission had picked a consultant to hire to help guide the auditorium renovation plan. Asheville City Council must vote on the hiring of said consultant.

Late last year, the city issued a “request for qualifications” (RFQThomasWolfeStructuralAcousticalAnalysis (1) from firms that could provide such a structural and acoustic update. To wit:

II. Scope of Services

The City of Asheville, North Carolina is seeking Statements of Qualifications for professional Services as required to assist in the evaluation of both acoustical and structural capabilities of the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium. Renovations to the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium have been discussed for several years. The RFQ does not seek for the selected firm/team to provide a design for renovations, however, we are seeking to analyze two key factors that will help guide and better inform future discussions about the facility and its place in our community, and guide how the community might approach the design of renovations going forward: the building’s structural capacity for renovations, and the acoustical capacity of the structure to accommodate significant sound improvements. These two disciplines are different, but they are intertwined in the need for one to support the other. We expect there will likely be a need for firms with experience in one discipline to team with a firm with experience in the other discipline. Professional services include, but are not limited to:

-Interviews of key staff members and tenant (Asheville Symphony)

-Investigate, assess and measure the existing acoustical conditions of the auditorium, including the solicitation of input from the Asheville Symphony.

-Evaluation of structural capabilities and acoustical enhancements required, current code compliance and cost estimation for implementation as related for a mutually negotiated number of staff generated renovation options/concepts.

Why do I see a direct competition for dollars and support between the Thomas Wolfe renovation plan and plans for the proposed performing arts center? Both are seeking public money for support. Both are essentially the same size. Both seek to be the preferred home of the Asheville Symphony.

Here’s a relevant section of a story about the two plans by Carol Motsinger, formerly of the Asheville Citizen-Times, late last year:

“We have not actively sought donations for the past two years as our focus changed from private (donors) to seeking advocacy from the public sector,” said Michael Stoll, president of the Asheville Area Center for the Performing Arts.

Mayor Esther Manheimer said she has met with center representatives “many times and am familiar with the various plans.”

“A performance center would be a wonderful addition to the rich cultural fabric of Asheville,” said Manheimer. “Yes, local government should support such an effort. However, the city is challenged to support the effort financially.”

The board is now considering six sites, all within two miles from the city center. Stoll said they are now studying the feasibility of each location.


Jason Sandford

Jason Sandford is a reporter, writer, blogger and photographer interested in all things Asheville.

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  1. Bill March 25, 2015

    I first went to Thomas Wolfe back when it was the Asheville Auditorium and hosted the Harlem Globetrotters. The building has served its purpose but needs to be torn down and replaced with a new facility that will take it and us to new heights. Perhaps they can save (restore) the old facade and keep the atrium, but there is too much wrong to make it right.

  2. Sandi March 20, 2015

    The Thomas Wolfe has extremely bad acoustics. Seating in general is horrible. What we need is something like the Peace Center (Greenville, SC) so we can support the larger productions and traveling shows.

  3. orulz March 20, 2015

    One of the worst things to me about the Thomas Wolfe is how far away the seats are in the back rows. Modern performing arts centers are not nearly so long and tend to place more seats in the balconies to bring people closer to the stage.

    A successful redesign might push the front wall of the performance hall forward (leaving more space backstage), and add a full-width balcony. The ceiling may not be high enough to accommodate this without a significant drop in capacity, so that may complicate things – but then again, roofs can be raised. They did it to the Greensboro Coliseum – twice, in 1972 and again in 1993. The lower level of that arena has seen more moderate upgrades since construction in 1959.

  4. Sarah March 19, 2015

    What a great idea! It’s about time the City renovated the Thomas Wolfe. It has so much potential, and the last thing we need in another performance center in Asheville. Can’t wait to see it!


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