Wharton Foundation's role expands with merger

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By John Barnhart

    The Wharton Memorial Foundation and the Bedford Academy for the Arts ended the old year by becoming one. The merger took place in September.

    The Wharton Memorial Foundation was formally organized in 1997, according to Fred Duis, the foundation’s vice president and a founding member. Its roots go back to the desire to set up a public garden.

    Its work went beyond a garden, however, when the fate of the Charles Wharton house came into question. It had housed the library’s children’s library for years, but was no longer needed for that purpose after the new library expansion was built. In the mid-90’s, there was talk of the two story brick house, built around 1886, being demolished.

    The Wharton Foundation took responsibility for this house, along with the John Wharton cottage, built in 1843. They hired a landscape architect and presented a garden concept and plan to restore the historic houses to Bedford City Council. City Council accepted the plan.

    They got the building that houses the Bower Center a few years ago and this fit perfectly with the houses. The building was built as the original St. John’s Episcopal Church and John Wharton was instrumental in getting it built. St. John’s Episcopal built its current building in the 1920’s and the church was home to Bedford Christian Church until that congregation moved to a new building on Va. 122 south of Bedford in 2005. Dr. John Bower, who grew up in Bedford, bought the church and donated it as a performing arts center.

    Dr. Bower’s donation set up the Bedford Academy for the Arts, which leased the church from the Wharton Foundation. With this fall’s merger, the Wharton Foundation has basically absorbed the Academy and it’s work will continue as the Bower Center for the Arts under the oversight of the Wharton Foundation. Amy Carter, who was working as the Academy’s interim director became the Bower Center’s executive director.

    Duis said that the merger came about because both groups felt that they could be more effective by combining.

    The Bower Center continues to do what the Bedford Academy was doing.

    The Bower Center Shoppe, a retail shop for art, is now open again. This shop features work by local artists.

    Carter said they will also get a pottery program rolling again. The Bedford Academy previously had a pottery program, but the necessary equipment was provided by the teachers. This time, the Bower Center will have it’s own equipment. The Center also has money, courtesy of Dr. Bower, with a kiln room complete with proper wiring.

    The Bower Center will also lease studio space. Currently, two potters are leasing space and working. The space is in a location where people can watch them.

    On the performing arts side, the Bower Center hosts a music lab that Duis said is one of the most modern facilities in Central Virginia. It has computers that allow people to learn how to apply music to web pages and video. This works for various age groups because the lab has a variety of age-specific software.

    Carter said the lab also has commercial potential for local bands.

    Performing arts programs are held in the church’s sanctuary which, Carter said, has excellent acoustics. This may be due to the fact that the 1848 version of a church sanctuary sound system was the room’s acoustics plus the pastor’s ability to project his voice. Electronic amplification wouldn’t be available for another century. This makes the Bower Center one of the best venues in Bedford for music performed without amps.

    Music performances for 2009 include the Roanoke Chamber Brass, scheduled for February 14 and the Harkening String Quartet, tentatively scheduled for May.

    Music classes are also available and one teacher, Sally Carter, teaches viola using the Suzuki method. This has nothing to do with motorcycles. Amy Carter said that this a teaching method that can be used to start children as young as four-years-old.

    A number of art classes will be offered in 2009. In addition to pottery, classes will include photography, painting, drawing, jewelry, mosaics and printmaking.

    Other opportunities in the works are Friday-night open-house jamming and classic music nights.

    For more information about schedules, call the Bower Center at 586-4235 or e-mail them at bedfordacademy@verizon.net.

    The Wharton Foundation is a 501(C) 3 non-profit and could always use funds for mowing, leaf collection, litter control and replanting annuals in the gardens.

    “We were able to start with a mature garden,” said Duis.

    That was thanks to Louise Bibb Wharton. The foundation was able to start with 75-year-old boxwoods and mature pecan trees. The trees keep the local squirrel population happy.

    “They are in squirrel heaven over there,” Duis said.

    There are plans for improvements. Duis said they have room for more sculpture and they would like to add a water feature. They are also bringing back the “Buy-A-Brick” program. This is a fundraiser in which people buy a brick paver for $100, all tax deductible. The brick is laser engraved with three lines with a maximum of 20 characters per line. What’s written on these lines is up to the purchaser. The bricks are made by Old Virginia Brick in Salem.

    The Wharton Foundation has plans to restore the church so that it looks like it did 100 years ago. This involves removing the white paint (the church’s exterior was painted after a 1952 addition was built) and taking it back to it’s original red brick. The church originally had four steeples and the foundation plans to rebuild them.

    “This building is just steeped in history,” Duis said.

    Duis sees the building as part of a continuum that started 165 years ago. One feature of that continuum is that it’s still used as a church. Bedford Lutheran Church worships there.