By Amber Hradec ’22 & Sara Ann Hutto ’17
Photography by Ashley Jones

The Echo Theater in Laurens, South Carolina, is undergoing a physical — and symbolic — transformation, thanks in part to architect and alumnus Michael Allen ’99.

On a downtown street just off the square in Laurens, South Carolina, sits a building that, at first glance, looks unassuming and small. With its faded sign and boarded up storefront, it doesn’t appear to be anything more than an out-of-use movie theater.

But the Echo Theater is much more than that. The transformations set to take place inside are directly challenging the building’s disturbing and complicated history in a significant way. Once home to the infamous “World’s Famous Redneck Shop” and a meeting place for white supremacist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party, the Echo Theater was a symbol of hatred and division.

Enter Michael Allen, the principal architect who is tasked with rebuilding the Echo Theater into a new community diversity center — open to all.

The Turning Point

In 1996, the Echo Theater, once a racially segregated movie theater, was turned into the “The World’s Famous Redneck Shop,” also advertised as a Ku Klux Klan museum. For years, a flood of KKK, neo-Nazi and other white supremacist memorabilia greeted anyone who walked through its doors.

Rev. David Kennedy of New Beginnings Missionary Baptist Church has been a civil rights activist in the town for decades — a town named after Henry Laurens, a former slave trader in the 1800s.

As someone who grew up in the Jim Crow era, Kennedy has experienced racial hate and violence firsthand. His own great-great uncle was lynched more than 100 years ago in Laurens. “If a white person was walking down the sidewalk,” he says, “we knew quickly to step to the side.”

Kennedy fought against the Redneck Shop for years when it was active, but he says, “It was considered a sin to fight.”

The turning point for the Echo Theater was an unlikely friendship between Kennedy and Klan member Mike Burden. In 1997, after choosing to leave the Klan with the encouragement of his girlfriend, Burden had fallen on hard times. Kennedy took Burden in when no one else would. That support led Burden to sell the rights of the building to Kennedy, under the agreement that the former owner of the Redneck Shop, John Howard, could run the store until he died.

In 2017, Kennedy was officially able to take over the building and begin the Echo Theater Project. In 2018, the movie Burden was released, chronicling the story of Burden, Kennedy and the Echo Theater.

“I want people to learn from my mistakes,” Burden told People in March 2020. “It’s the small people in this world who are going to make this change. It’s not the politicians. It’s the reverend, the people who work.”

Today, the Echo Theater still houses the narrow entrance a mere 6 feet away from the main door, where people of color were forced to enter back when it was still a segregated movie theater. Inside, there are peeling stickers from the building’s days as the Redneck Shop. In the large main room, the old theater, a fading swastika covers the majority of the back wall. Broken glass also litters the floor from people who vandalized the building in protest of its new purpose.

But Kennedy aims to change all of that. It is his and his church’s mission to turn the building into a community center.

The renovations will take the neglected interior and transform it into a destination that will not only support all members of the community but also help increase education about racial injustice. The building that sold KKK robes as recently as 2012 will be replaced with a museum that will foster dialogue and a community space that is both approachable and versatile.

This is where Michael Allen comes in. As the principal designer/architect for the project, Allen, along with a large team, is working hard to make sure the vision Kennedy and his congregation have for the building comes to fruition.

Clemson and Beyond

Allen was born and raised in Conway, South Carolina. In high school, he was recruited by colleges all over the nation — including Clemson — because he was considered one of the Eastern region’s top football players at the time. When it came time to choose a school, Allen chose to be a Tiger.

Clemson offered Allen a full scholarship to play for the team, first as a running back and then on defense. However, football was more than just a way to pay for college. Allen had found a second family in his teammates and coaches. Off the field, Allen was enjoying architecture classes that were satisfying his love of art and creativity. He was learning that architecture is much more than just designing buildings.

“You are a problem-solver,” Allen says, “putting all the pieces together to give your client the building and the image they see in their mind while also being able to adapt that concept into a site, into an environment, and still create something they will love.”

Graduation came and went. Allen received his diploma, and he chose to focus on football. It was a tough time for him because he didn’t get drafted like he had always imagined. However, he remained committed and actively sought out football opportunities. He spent three years playing arena football and in some semi-pro leagues, continuing to train and work hard in hopes that an NFL team would pick him up.

At the same time, Allen interned at multiple architecture firms, where he began to learn how to be a client nourisher and how to connect his buildings with the environment in a positive way.

Over time, Allen came to realize that professional football might not be in the cards for his future. But his education and experience in architecture had prepared him well for a career. He was able to take all that he learned from playing football, those lessons of teamwork and leadership, and combine it with his skills in architecture.

Founding a Firm

For years, Allen worked at various architecture firms and on numerous projects that he says taught him the importance of not only the final design but also the process it takes to get there. He also learned that maintaining a good relationship with the client increases the likelihood of success for the building and the potential for those clients to come back later.

In 2019, he was awarded the Brian Dawkins Lifetime Achievement Award by the Clemson Football program, which is presented every year to former players who have shown support for the University and displayed exceptional community leadership.

That same year, Allen founded his own Greenville-based firm, MOA Architecture, where he is now the CEO. His belief in his own abilities and his desire to choose his own projects — ones that spoke to him personally and creatively — gave him the confidence to take the leap.

The goal of MOA Architecture, he says, is to “make sure that we are doing our best and giving the community users a great experience.”

Since its founding, his firm has built a brand that seeks to sustainably contribute to the built environment, maintain a strong social conscience and ultimately do good for the community. Allen says he wants to design spaces that “welcome and include.”

One such space is a community center in North Carolina that Allen and his team helped renovate to provide more space for events and expanded the building to include accessible areas for seniors and those with special needs.

Another project that is still underway is the preservation and reimagining of Camp Daniels, a historic Black summer camp that opened in Elloree, South Carolina, in 1947. It was later deeded to South Carolina State University but was discontinued in 1994 due to the deteriorating 50-year-old buildings.

Allen and his team were hired by the university to complete a master plan for the camp that will preserve its important history and also provide revitalized space for campers. The plan includes sustainable practices using natural materials, such as wood and stone. Soon, Camp Daniels will be back open and once again filled with activity.

Creating a Team

During his busy schedule, Allen works hard to set aside time to give back. He serves as both a Liberty Fellow for South Carolina, a statewide fellowship that aims to develop leaders of environmental, economic and political change, and the current president of the Clemson Black Alumni Council. “My brain doesn’t stop,” Allen said in an interview with the Clemson Alumni Association.

According to a 2019 article in INSIGHT Into Diversity, only 2 percent of licensed architects in America are Black, a statistic Allen is very aware of as he takes on projects, focusing on those in which he can bring his identity and background to bear. “It has always been in my DNA for race change in America,” Allen says.

“[Allen] is very aware of his role in practicing architecture. It is rare to walk into a room and see anyone that looks like him and me,” says Travis Rice ’01, a current project designer at MOA Architecture and longtime friend of Allen’s from Clemson. “That can be isolating to some, but not to Michael.”

“I’m really hoping and praying what it does is heal this hate from the past and help change the narrative of race relations in America. When you turn the key and open the door, [I hope] that people really feel that we put a lot of spirit and heart into it.” 

Allen recently hired another Clemson graduate, Priscilla Singleton ’97, M ’02. The two have known each other for over 20 years and have created a working relationship “backed by mutual respect and trust,” Singleton says. She took a position as COO of MOA Architecture, coming out of retirement to do so. “I have always thought highly of [Allen] because he is a genuine leader and a man of integrity with vast experiences that he brings to the table of architecture,” she adds.

Singleton says she is excited to work on the Echo Theater project because it is one way to reconcile and correct “the wrongs of the past and present.”

“As the United States awakens to its embedded racism, actions speak louder than words,” Rice says. “The actual work will come when we remove racist systems.”

For Allen and his team, the Echo Theater project is a step toward this direction.

Spirit and Heart

David Walker, the vice president of construction at Sodexo Energy and Resources and construction manager for the Echo project, met Allen through a partnership designing Claflin University’s Health and Wellness Center. Walker witnessed firsthand Allen’s ability to put the client’s needs and opinions above his own.

“Not every architect can do that,” Walker says. “Not every person can do that.”

As a result of that experience, Walker reached out to Allen for help on the Echo Theater.

“The first time [Allen] had lunch with Dr. Kennedy and myself, I could tell that the story behind the Echo Theater moved him,” says Walker. “He wore it on his face. At that moment, I knew he was the right guy for this project. Nothing more needed to be said.”

Many community-based design projects begin with a charette, a meeting of all parties involved. It is a time for the architects to listen and gain a clearer idea of the direction to take the project. Allen led a design charette in the early stages of the Echo project. He asked the group to go around the room and describe the building and the project in one word.

“Hate, retribution, diversity — all these words start popping out,” Allen says. “You start to see how collectively these words really help the beginning of the design process. What feeling do we want to start designing toward?”

Kennedy describes this meeting as an “incredible and precious moment.”

“[Allen] put all the ideas and concepts together, even the different types of philosophies coming from each of us,” Kennedy says. “He did an incredible job of creating an atmosphere that included us.”

The team is currently in the demolition phase of the project and is in the process of starting the schematic design phase. Allen’s job as principal design architect involves a lot of planning, budgeting, fundraising, scheduling and communicating with all the parties involved. He works especially hard to continuously communicate with Kennedy.

“Architecture can really define spaces, and the shop was just contributing to the culture of hate in the city,” Allen explains. “We don’t want to remove the thought of what this building was. We want to embrace it and change the narrative of it so that we can convert it into something positive.”

For Allen and his firm, the Echo Theater completely aligns with their values and mission. The project, he says, “represents this change that is happening in America, and this change symbolizes where America was, but also where we can go.”

Allen hopes the positivity that came about to produce the community center will be palpable as guests engage with the museum and use it for community activities.

“I’m really hoping and praying what it does is heal this hate from the past and help change the narrative of race relations in America,” Allen says. “When you turn the key and open the door, [I hope] that people really feel that we put a lot of spirit and heart into it.” 

6 replies
  1. Carrie G. Motes says:

    This article was uplifting in its message of taking something negative, and turning it into something positive; also brings to mind the thought of inclusion as opposed to exclusion.

    Reply
  2. Ann Smith Swift says:

    This is an amazing article and the new project of the Echo will be a major contribution to the Lauren’s community. Awesome!

    Reply
  3. Margie says:

    As a Clemson grad I am continually encouraged to see how Tigers are making a difference. I made many trips to Laurens as I grew up — it was less than a 30 minute drive from my home. Good to know that positive changes are being made.

    Reply
  4. Byron Harder says:

    Michael was a class act while at Clemson and it is a pleasure to read about his continuing this as a professional!

    Reply
  5. Ed Lindler says:

    I grew up in Laurens & spent many happy Saturday mornings in the Echo theater. To my way of thinking, it offered the best deal in town. For 10 cents, I could watch a double- (& on occasion, a triple) feature western along with a whole slew of serials. I can still remember how my excitement built as the week came to a close at the thought of watching Roy, Gene, & all the other good guys ride in at the last minute to save the day. & what about the serial(s)?? Would it be The
    Shadow battling The Black Tiger with his death ray & ability to become invisible? Or would this be the day Fu Manchu found the keys to Genghis Kahn’s tomb? Maybe it would be The Spider as he went against The Octopus & his plot to sabotage America. & sometimes we got to watch The Green Hornet & Kato battle the ruthless Boss Crogan. Well, a lot of years have passed since those days & my time in Laurens. I really haven’t thought much about the Echo during that time until I ran across this article. It filled my heart with sadness as I read about what it became. So, I am beyond pleased that Mr. Allen has taken on this project & am thrilled that his plans will help convert the Echo to a place that will once again be associated with fond memories just as it was many years ago for a young boy who left that place nearly every Saturday about lunchtime filled with dreams of one day figthing evil with good. So, Mr. Allen, my prayers are with you on this journey, & I wish you Godspeed. & gooo … Tigers! – Ed Lindler, Class of ’67

    Reply

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