For years, the 1950s-era structure simply known as the "triangle building" on Ferdinand Street lay vacant.

Come next summer, it will be the Cary Saurage Community Arts Center, the new home for Arts Council of Greater Baton Rouge.

Work on the $3 million project, named for the local arts patron, began in January and has progressed through the pandemic.

"It so happened that the city-parish had this triangular-shaped building that was not desirable for a lot of people, but for an arts organization, it was very exciting to have a midcentury, uniquely shaped building. It couldn't be more perfect," said Renee Chatelain, director and CEO of the Arts Council. "We entered into a cooperative endeavor with the city. The city still owns the building, but we were charged with the cost of renovating.

"I'm excited to say that zero tax dollars went into this renovation. It's all private investment, and with the help of the Capital Area Finance Authority, who provided financing for us, we were able to move pretty quickly into this renovation." 

For now, the high-pitched whir of drills echo and the drip of water is unmistakable in the cavernous space at 233 St. Ferdinand St. that was completely gutted for the renovation.

"The black box theater is going to be over there," said Duane Meeks, superintendent for Faulk & Meek General Contractors. "And the gallery will be there. And up there will be the balcony overlooking the gallery."

The spaces pointed out by Meeks match the sleek lines of the renderings spread out on the table at the Arts Council's current headquarters in the old Robert A. Bogan Fire Station on Laurel Street.

"The art gallery is going to be where the building comes to a point," said Jonathan Grimes, the Art Council's director of facilities, IT and music. "A glassed extension (built with a $300,000 donation from Shell) will be added so we can exhibit larger works."

The idea of reimagining the space came from Arts Council's longtime architecture firm, Ritter Maher Architects, Chatelain said.

"And that was just eye-opening for all of us," she said. "So, the staff gave a lot of input for what might work and that's how we got to the design."

Each staff member is a working artist, from performing to visual, and all submitted suggestions for the building, including the gallery, theater and a recording studio.

"We always knew we wanted the (theater) and recording studio on the first floor, and there were some little moves here or there, because maybe the elevator wasn't big enough or we needed to bring things up to current codes," Chatelain said. "We also have, as artists, created a real estate committee with people who deal in real estate development and construction. We said, 'Here are our ideas, but you work in this every day, so how will this work?' So, it's been a process with several committees."

The only changes to the exterior will be the glassed extension and a rooftop terrace, which will be open for multiple uses — an idea central to the facility, Chatelain said.

"Every space in the building has the potential of being an artist workspace," she said. "While we have a meeting room upstairs, it could easily be converted into a class space for visual artists or a painting space or a throw space. We also have an artist's lounge, where you could work, say, if you're a writer. We're hoping every space will have that flexibility."

The recording studio is connected to the black box theater, which can double as part of the studio for larger music groups.

"Let's say you have a band with several members," Chatelain said "The black box theater serves as the studio space, and the recording studio is the engineering room. But if you're a solo artist, you could use just the very small room and do it that way. We wanted to allow the flexibility for larger, multi-piece work."

The black box also can serve as both a rehearsal or small performance space for theater, music and dance groups.

"If you're developing a new work, you might want to workshop it, or you might want to do scenes in the space," Chatelain said. "The idea is for us to be the affordable space where you can do that. When you get it to performance ready, the hope would be that you would go to the theater of your particular capacity, but it would also be performance ready if you want it."

The building will house artists' studios and two kilns. The terrace will have an enclosed room connected to an open air space.

"The idea is that if you would just like to go sit on the terrace and write or have a small meeting or if you want to have a reception after going to the River Center, it would be open to you," Chatelain said. "But it's also convertible, so if you want to do a plein air or photography class, you'll be able to use that as well."

Most important, the director said, is keeping the space affordable for artists.

"Our fundraising goal of $3 million includes everything," Chatelain said. "That includes a sustainability fund. We were adamant about accessibility, and we didn't want it to be priced out so extensively that you couldn't use it. So the sustainability fund would provide grants for artists. If you're working on something that might take three months and you show that you are doing something for the community, that space may be free for you through the grant program."

The coronavirus lockdown did not slow the renovation process.

"Construction was considered an essential business, so while we had a few delays with supplies and other details, we're still on a decent track to opening next July," Chatelain said. "But this time has also given us an opportunity to plan better.

"We are the agency for arts throughout a region of 11 parishes, and we created an arts advisory board that included artists from this region to provide input on the building, and we get a much richer wealth of information."

Fundraising continues through council's capital campaign.

"The reason we're doing this campaign is so people can invest in whatever level they can," Chatelain said. "If they want to give a dollar to this campaign because it's important, that is fine with us. Everybody can have an input. That's the final phase. It's their Arts Council."    

The new location has another perk: It will stand in the midst of downtown Baton Rouge's cultural district, which includes the Raising Cane's River Center and Theatre, the East Baton Rouge Parish Library's new River Center Branch, Louisiana's Old State Capitol, the USS Kidd Veterans Museum, the Louisiana Arts and Science Museum and The Shaw Center for the Arts.

"And at the same time, the location is closer to Baton Rouge Community College's campus just south of Government Street, so it starts to tie in across Government and some of the really interesting cultural happenings that might develop there," Chatelain said. "It's that whole cultural district that we feel very excited about."


Email Robin Miller at romiller@theadvocate.com