Seton Hill University is going downhill … in a most positive way.
The venerable Catholic institution, on a bluff overlooking the rest of Greensburg, has expanded its campus, its academic offerings and its reputation -- while further rejuvenating the cultural climate of its city.
Seton Hill's much-anticipated Performing Arts Center is here, smack in the middle of downtown, 200 yards from the driveway that rises precipitously to the rest of the school.
It is a 73,000-square-foot testament to opulence, efficiency and modern technology -- and a significant upgrade to the two smallish buildings that long served the popular music and theater programs at Seton Hill.
The center, officially, will be unveiled at 7:45 tonight, at an invitation-only "grand opening." An opening for the general public will be from 2 to 4 p.m. Sept. 27.
But in reality, the place has been operational for more than a month. Faculty and staff moved into offices before the semester began Aug. 24, when students started taking classes and rehearsing there.
Apparently, the students are as enamored of the center as Curt Scheib, professor of music and chair of the Division of Visual and Performing Arts.
"They tell us every day how much they love it here," said Dr. Scheib, whose office is in the center. "We're concerned that they don't want to go to classes elsewhere."
Perched at the intersection of Harrison Avenue and West Otterman Street, on a site previous occupied by a building so decrepit, it literally fell in, the center cost about $21 million -- most of which came from private sources -- and took 22 months to construct.
Actually, about 70 years. Joanne W. Boyle, president of Seton Hill, said the first of numerous plans for a fine arts center evolved in the 1930s. None of them had been fruitful until now.
"Students and parents who see this are impressed," said Molly Robb Shinko, associate vice president for institutional advancement. "They're no longer hearing about plans."
The main features to the outsider are the Carol Ann Reichgut Concert Hall, with 470 seats, and Ryan Theatre (200-plus seats). But while acknowledging that "there will be [public entertainment] events, of course," Dr. Boyle clarified that "this will be a teaching building. We will have the business of music here."
To that end, there are classrooms, faculty and administrative offices, rehearsal areas, dressing rooms, concert and machine shops, computer labs … just about everything related to performing arts.
And this is not your older sibling's Seton Hill arts venue -- which, until now, was Cecilian Hall or Reeves Theatre. Most of the pianos are Steinways. The acoustics, lighting, sound and video are ultra-modern. Leave a classroom in which a cellist rehearses, and you do not hear a note. Storage rooms are climate-controlled to protect instruments.
Seton Hill students, of course, are the primary beneficiaries of the center. "Into the Woods," the first theater production, will be staged in late October. The first concert was Aug. 17, for faculty and staff. The university choir and band, The Griffin Band, will perform at today's gala.
Yet this will be a general public facility as well, for patrons of university music, theater and dance events, and for the nearly 300 who are enrolled in the Seton Hill Community Music Program (age 7 and up) or Dance Academy (ages 5-18).
The center also will be home for the Westmoreland Symphonic Winds and occasional home of the Westmoreland Symphony.
Downtown Greensburg, in the meantime, continues to get better-looking. A number of buildings have been beautifully renovated and/or restored over the past 20 years or so, including the Westmoreland County Courthouse, the Palace Theatre and the Train Station.
One entrance to the Performing Arts Center is across from the train station. The Palace Theatre is a block away, the courthouse two blocks. The Westmoreland Museum of American Art is a 10-minute walk.
"The mayor [Karl E. Eisaman] said that a vibrant cultural district is important to a city," Dr. Boyle said.
This latest piece of culture has been quite a recruiting tool, to be sure. Seton Hill officials say that since plans for the center were announced in 2004, enrollment in music and theatre (including dance) has risen 92 percent, to 150.
As of July, the university had raised all but about $100,000 of the $21 million cost. Most of the funding has come from private sources, including 181 current employees.
One of them is Judith Koveleskie, a periodicals librarian who made a splash as a "Jeopardy" contestant on May 22, 2008. She and her husband, Robert, purchased 27 seats -- an entire row -- in the concert hall. They made another donation and had a practice room in the center named after them.
The hall bears the name of another university benefactor. Carol Ann Reichgut, a 1956 graduate and a music teacher, donated $3.5 million to her alma mater before her death last year.
Seton Hill did not develop the Performing Arts Center on its own. It worked with the city of Greensburg, the Redevelopment Authority of the County of Westmoreland, the County of Westmoreland, the Greensburg Salem School District, the Westmoreland Cultural Trust, and local legislators.
MacLachlan, Cornelius & Filoni Architects Inc., of Pittsburgh, was the architectural firm. Massaro Corporation, of Pittsburgh, was the general contractor.
The Performing Arts Center is a testament to tradition. The first two Seton Hill graduates, in 1919, earned bachelor of music degrees.
And despite being three weeks old, the facility has quite a reputation locally.
"Everyone on this campus is so proud of this building," Dr. Boyle said.
PG East editor Rick Shrum can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1911.