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A Little Bit of Beijing in Ohio

By Laura Van TuylStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 4, 1989


COLUMBUS, Ohio, may not be the first place one thinks of when it comes to international art shows. But when city officials realized they had a chance to play host to the largest exhibition of Chinese art treasures outside China, how could they sit still? If their pluckiness wasn't enough to make cultured East Coasters do a double take, the planners proposed to display the artifacts in an old high school downtown. With a little renovation, why not? The Chinese approved.

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And now, over a year later and five months into the ``Son of Heaven'' event, some 400,000 people from nearly every state and over 50 countries have shuffled through the remodeled hallways and classrooms to see this rare show. The euphoria in town nearly rivals that of past football seasons at Ohio State.

``The story for Columbus,'' says Merribell Parsons, director of the Columbus Museum of Art, ``is obtaining the exhibition, taking the risk, and accomplishing a meaningful interpretation'' of a landmark school building.

``People from the East Coast think we're still fightin' Indians out here,'' says John Schooley, with a chuckle. Mr. Schooley is architect of the $2 million renovation of Central High School, now renamed Columbus Central. After being closed for seven years, the 63-year-old school, perched on the banks of the Olentangy River, was purchased by the city so that ``Son of Heaven'' could move in.

Every conceivable kind of treasure arrived - from silk-spun carpets and court robes to enormous bronze bells and life-sized terra cotta warriors. All items once belonged to China's past emperors, each known as the Son of Heaven. The objects span 26 centuries, and many were excavated within the last 15 years and have never been outside China.

But before one relic could be positioned, the high school had to be transformed. Given just six months to prepare, Schooley and his team of architects - advised by the Chinese curatorial team and experts from the city's Museum of Art - designed a dramatic, highly symbolic setting to create a ``sense of place'' through color and architectural forms.

``This was the auditorium,'' says Schooley, entering the first display area, ``The Outer Court.'' All the seats are gone, and a carpeted floor slopes downward to the front. Ramps with white balustrades lead up to the stage - the imagined entrance to the Hall of Supreme Harmony in Beijing's Forbidden City. A yellow, pagoda-style roof crowns the proscenium arch, and beyond four red pillars stands the exquisite ``Dragon Throne'' and silk cushion.

``We wanted to evoke the aura of imperial life,'' says Schooley, who has traveled to and studied China's palaces and temples. The school and exhibits ``really fit like a hand in a glove,'' he says.

Visitors wind their way through hushed, low-lighted spaces, viewing royal crowns and cloisonn'e where there was once a basketball court or art room.