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Ashe Power House, an electrifying Central City performing-arts center opens Friday

The Ashe Cultural Arts Center will unveil the Ashe Power House, a new performing arts facility at 1731 Baronne St. on Friday (Feb. 27), 2015 (Photo by Doug MacCash / | The Times-Picayune)

The Ashe Cultural Arts Center will unveil a new performing arts facility at a ribbon-cutting ceremony Friday (Feb. 27). Featuring a state of the art 200-seat theater and an enormous lobby art gallery, the Ashe Power House will be another boon to the blossoming Central City neighborhood.

Carol Bebelle, the co-founder and director of Ashe, said that the staff of the organization cast around for a poetic name for the newly renovated building at 1731 Baronne St. But in the end they settled on something obvious. Since the 90-year-old structure was originally an electrical power switching station for streetcars, the folks at Ashe decided to call it the Power House.

"It was a power house, let's call it a power house," Bebelle said. "It really is in a certain kind of way, like Ashe to the third power. It's that kind of thing."

According to Bebelle, in the Yoruba tradition, Ashe is like a divine force that provides the ability to make things happen.

"People say it like amen," she said.

Ashe Power House opening weekend events
  • What: The Ashe Cultural Arts Center opens a new Central City performing arts venue.

  • Where: 1731 Baronne St.

  • Ribbon Cutting and Press Conference: Friday (Feb. 27) at 1 p.m. Free admission.

  • A Grand Evening reception: Friday (Feb. 27) from 8 to 11 p.m. Featuring the The Uptown Jazz Orchestra, Dale Baxter and Jupiter Funk, with appearances by Troi Bechet, Sharon Martin, and Hannibal Lokumbe. Individual admission $50, or $75 per couple.

  • Bless This House, Ashe showcase: Saturday (Feb. 28), 10 a.m.-5 p.m. With a blessing of the building at 10 a.m., Power House tour at noon, Kuumba Institute Youth Performance at 1, Sistahs Making a Change Performance at 2, Movers and Groovers Performance at 3, Barbershop Men Present at 4 and Creative Team Performance at 5. Free.

  • Uptown Saturday Night party: Sat. (Feb. 28), 9 p.m.-1 a.m. Featuring Tank and the Bangas, DJ Chris Stylez and artists from Beats and Brushstrokes. Admission $10.

  • More information:Visit the Ashe website or call 504.569.9070.

The 10,650 square-foot Ashe Power House is a sturdily built brick cube with a muscular Arts and Crafts facade. Tall contemporary windows lend the antique structure a certain new urban chicness. But inside, thick iron girders and concrete footings bespeak the building's gritty industrial history. Squealing streetcars once trundled in and out of the building at the main Baronne Street entrance.

Ashe's theater consultant, John Grimsley, who provided a preview tour, pointed out the odd series of concrete booths near the basement dressing rooms that once held enormous electrical equipment.

Grimsley guessed that the height of the building's lobby/art gallery area is between 24 and 30 feet. Sunlight streams through skylights into the canyon-like interior.

Through a set of steel doors, Grimsley led to the equally lofty theater where members of the Southern Rep troupe were building the set for the first production in the new space, Tennessee William's play "Suddenly Last Summer" that opens with previews from March 4 to 6 and continues through March 29. Southern Rep will conduct its 2015 season in the Power House space.

Grimsley pointed out the retractable stadium risers built into the base of an elevated control room where the light and sound staff will roost during performances, high above the audience. Banner-like blackout curtains conceal the windows. An elaborate lighting grid and high-tech special effects projector hang from the ceiling above the stage. The house speakers, Grimsley said, are top of the line.

No one can remember how long the Power House stood empty before it was repurposed into a theater/art gallery. The renovation cost $7.5 million, according to Bebelle, who thanks developer Kathy Laborde, president of Gulf Coast Housing Partnership for the opportunity to occupy the new space.

Laborde explained that Gulf Coast Housing Partnership specializes in affordable housing development. But in addition to housing, neighborhoods benefit from cultural amenities.

Calling on a combination of federal and state historical property tax credits, live performance tax credits, new market tax credits, bank loans and some funds raised by Ashe, Gulf Coast Housing Partnership was able to renovate the old powerhouse into the new Power House.

To satisfy the tax-credit stipulations, the building will be occupied by Ashe or another community service organization for seven years before it could be put on the market for sale, Laborde explained. By then, Ashe would be the natural buyer.

According to Bebelle, Laborde has been a partner of Ashe since the non-profit African-American arts and culture center first opened on nearby Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard in 1998. With the help of similar tax incentive-financed development, Ashe came to own the historic storefront property at 1712 O.C. Haley and the apartments above.

Sneak preview of the Ashe Power HouseThe Ashe Cultural Arts Center will unveil the Ashe Power House, a new performing arts facility at 1731 Baronne St. on Friday (Feb. 27), 2015. Featuring a state of the art 200-seat theater and an enormous lobby art gallery, the Ashe Power House will be another boon to the blossoming Central City neighborhood.

Those upstairs apartments are a mixed blessing when it comes to theater, Bebelle explained. From the beginning, Ashe has hosted performances of all sorts at its O.C. Haley location. But in order to be a good neighbor to the tenants upstairs, the curtain had to drop by roughly 10 p. m.. That's an early quitting time in New Orleans, Bebelle said.

The Power House will permit Ashe to host and produce shows that last late into the night. Rental of the space for theater, concerts and other events will also add to the non-profit's bottom line. Bebelle sees the acquisition of the space as a coming of age for Ashe.

"One of the big things that this building does is it gives us the ability to grow up and to play with the big girls and the big boys," she said. "We're on our way to being seventeen years old and sixteen is kind of, on the human plane, a rite of passage. You get the car, you get to stay out later, you can work for a living, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. In a certain kind of way, this building is giving us that capacity as well."

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