By Theresa St. John
It isn’t until I park my rental car in the long, sprawling driveway that I realize just how large the Coastal Arts Center is.
I’ve driven down from my vacation rental on a warm, sunny day, arriving well before the complex is open. The whole area is inviting. Tucked into four acres of land, with plenty of shade trees to help with the heat of Summer, the center overlooks a peaceful scene of Wolf Bay.
A dirt path at the edge of the property leads me towards a beautiful wooden pier stretching out over the water. I can see people already out fishing from the end of it, their gear and picnic coolers set under an awning offering shelter from the hot hours ahead.
I sit on a comfortable bench with coffee and a book, breathing in the fresh air, making my way through a chapter or two before moving on again.
The campus itself showcases a stunning example of historic architecture. Comprised of several buildings, the central one measures 10,000-square-feet, it’s stately exterior exuding the feel of its historic past.
Until 2015, The Coastal Arts Center resided in the city’s first hotel. The boarding-house-style hotel was built in 1923 and offered 11 bedrooms and a half-bathroom on the upper level, while the family lived on the bottom floor.
Accessible only by water until Canal Road was completed in the 1940s, the hotel served workers in the turpentine industry. Because of severe structural damage to the building over time, it was torn down in the Spring of 2015, replaced with the structure that stands there today.
Several historic pieces from the hotel were able to be salvaged. Old columns, original wood flooring, doors, and windows are prominent features in the new space.
The Arts Center is an open floor design in the main room, with smaller rooms tucked off on each side. Warm wood tones lead visitors throughout the two-floor building. Both floors highlight local artists and their deep love for Alabama’s Gulf Coast.
Watercolors, pottery, paintings, photographs, sculptures, and textiles are on display everywhere I look, their color and creativity amazing. I take my time wandering through spacious rooms, run my hands over a long and winding metal handrail that guides me to the 2nd floor, gaze upwards towards a stunning glass-blown lighting fixture overhead.
The gift shop has unique pieces that are very affordable if visitors choose to buy something to remember their vacation at Orange Beach. From what I understand, the center is always looking for new talent, so the artwork and other pieces frequently change, warranting more than one visit.
The campus offers classes in their Clay Studio. Here a visitor can throw on the potter’s wheel, leaving with a unique piece of their own. I choose to take a class inside The Hot Shop, Alabama’s premier hot glass-blowing studio, where Ibecome the student for a while, learning how to make a glass paperweight.
The center, previously managed by The Friends of the Arts non-profit group, is now a wholly-run Orange Beach city facility, though the two work closely together, making sure the center remains a well-rounded space for the arts.
There are adult classes offered in acrylic, watercolor, mixed media and more during various times of the year. Southern hospitality is warm and welcoming here, from the moment one arrives, to the moment they leave.
It makes me wish I lived closer.