AMERICUS, GA — Parker’s Heating and Air Conditioning, Inc., has some history on its side.

The contractor has played a major role in the city of Americus for 51 years, so it seemed appropriate for Parker’s to be on stage for the recently finished restoration of the city’s nearly 80-year-old Rylander Theatre, once dubbed by critics, “the finest playhouse south of Atlanta.”

In its heyday, the Rylander hosted stars as diverse as John Philip Sousa’s band, World War I hero Alvin York, the Ziegfield Follies, movies, graduations, boxing matches, and beauty pageants. After three decades, though, it fell into disuse. It had been dark almost as long as Parker’s has been in business.

An architect and an engineer from Atlanta, a general contractor from Dublin GA, and many other subcontractors were instrumental in restoring the 630-seat Rylander, but Parker’s solved a major cost concern by redesigning the original hvac plan — for free.

Couldn't use existing equipment

Using or even updating existing equipment wasn’t an option. The theater had been cooled with a couple of makeshift swamp coolers on the roof and heated with a boiler that fed radiators throughout the auditorium and lobby.

The boiler had long since disappeared, and the swamp coolers were useless.

The original restoration plan called for installing a chilled- and hot-water system, which posed major cost and appearance-altering problems. When that dilemma surfaced, Parker’s presented a less-intrusive and more cost-effective approach, employing roof-mounted direct-expansion equipment manufactured by The Trane Company (La Crosse, WI).

The 85.5-ton installation is all the more remarkable because it has been done without altering the appearance of an intricate and exquisite 80-year-old structure, yet equips it with a state-of-the-art, customer-operated control system that permits maximum flexibility (Trane’s Comfort Tracker™).

The system is totally concealed from audience view, with heated or chilled air flowing mostly through original or reconstructed grilles throughout the theater. The multipurpose building also houses a theater and historic library, conference and meeting rooms, and serves as a cultural center, able to host and share presentations with audiences anywhere in the world.

To meet those needs as well as those of the main auditorium, backstage, and lobby areas of the Rylander, heating and cooling can be “ordered” according to space or function without turning on the entire system.

Thus, the system offers much better first cost and operating cost than the original concept. It is also acoustically compatible with any type of use or performance.

Contractor's point of view

The job was far from routine, says Terry Duncan, Parker’s vice president and representative on the restoration team that met weekly throughout the Rylander Theatre project.

“It was a difficult but fun job,” he told The News following the grand reopening of the theater late last year.

A multitude of other crafts and trades also had to be accommodated. “It’s a give-and-take situation because in a building like that, you can’t just chop it up and run ductwork, pipes, and wire all over the place,” Duncan notes. “Other trades were in our way or we in theirs.

“We met weekly so we could work out these ‘opportunities’; that really made the difference.

“Our only constraint was maintaining the architectural integrity of the Rylander,” Duncan adds. “If we had gone with the chiller system, there would have been some pipes somewhere. We could have built around it, but that kind of destroys what we were trying to do.”

Don't touch that organ

Parker’s adaptability to evolving needs was put to the test when a large, vertical grilled area to the left of the stage, thought wholly available for duct runs and distribution of heated or cooled air, suddenly had a new occupant: the pipes and other apparatus of a 1928-vintage Moller organ donated to the project after renovation had begun.

The hvac equipment had to be confined to the top half of the big grilled chamber, with the organ’s pipes (up to 16 ft high) going in the lower half.

Another tight fit came in the narrow ceiling space separating the main auditorium floor from the first balcony. There was barely room for a medium-height person to stand, but Parker’s fit in two 5-ton units and employed existing grilles as well as supplemental grilles, which exactly matched the originals in appearance and ceiling placement.

“I don’t know how they got some of the ductwork in here, and to do the job under the constraints we had would seem difficult,” said Charlie Garbutt, president of the Garbutt Construction Co., Dublin, GA, the general contractor. “I think Parker’s did a great job.”

Lane Greene, an Atlanta architect specializing in architectural restorations, concurred. “There were some challenges here for the hvac system.”

Greene credited the hvac contractor with designing the alternative to the original concept of a four-pipe heating and cooling system. Wayne Hood, of David Lee & Associates in Atlanta, was project engineer.

Back in Action

The restored Rylander hosted a variety of functions in its first few months, ranging from Benefactors’ Preview Galas in late September, appropriately featuring music of the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra, to drama and choral, chamber and rock concerts.

In October, the Rylander was the site to celebrate President Carter’s 75th birthday with a star-studded gala.

With such variety, the Rylander seems to have a bright future. Audiences can enjoy it in comfort, thanks to Parker’s role in bringing the theater back to life.

Sidebar: Community spirit lifts contractor's high profile

One can hardly avoid meeting someone from Parker’s Heating & Air Conditioning (Americus, GA) at any meeting of local or area civic and community betterment groups. It seems to be a management maxim to get involved and support whatever activity or cause is being advanced.

Every member of the four-member sales team is energetically involved in one or more such organizations.

Consequently, business and other community leaders naturally think of Parker’s when they contemplate new or retrofit hvac jobs, whether routine or difficult. (The latter word is rarely breathed at Parker’s; founder and chairman Roy Parker III prefers to view problems or “challenges” as “opportunities.”)

It’s the contractor’s way of not only making the firm visible and keeping abreast of forthcoming changes, but also contributing to community growth. That often involves doing community projects with little or no profit, or giving back much of the profit to the project.

As vice president Terry Duncan explains, it’s a way of making Americus and Sumter County a better place to live, and an area that will continue to grow in both economic and social values.

Growth Cycles

In the 51 years since Parker’s was founded, Americus and nearby areas have had their share of business cycles.

Recently the city and county have seen what Duncan calls “slow but steady” growth, particularly in the past quarter century, since the once-dominant mobile home building industry hit the skids and unemployment ranged around 20%.

More diverse industry and business activity has since grown in the area, so much so that the unemployment rate is now around 5%.

A downtown revitalization and area activity engendered by the presence of national and world leaders such as former President Jimmy Carter and Habitat for Humanity International founder Millard Fuller have also meant more business, and often more “pro-bono” work, involving Parker’s and its employees.

Pro-bono jobs

The company installed the new hvac system in the Rylander Building, once a car dealership, next door to the now-restored Rylander Theatre (see accompanying story). The multistory Rylander Building is headquarters for Habitat for Humanity International.

A few years ago, the company equipped the historic Windsor Hotel here with modern indoor comfort while preserving the structure’s original looks, both interior and exterior.

In nearby Plains, GA, President Carter spearheaded building a home for the Boys’ and Girls’ Clubs of that community. The cost was covered almost entirely by community and corporate donations. Parker’s installed the hvac system there on a no-profit basis, hooking up a high-efficiency Puron® system donated by Carrier. The project was completed last fall.

During the past year, Parker’s employees pitched in as volunteers on a weekend day to install heating and cooling in a Habitat for Humanity building blitz in Americus, to help complete 20 houses in one week’s time. Again, Carrier donated the systems and other vendors and suppliers pitched in with more donations, enough to help build more houses. “Our guys enjoyed it, even though they worked all day and into the night, but they completed all 20 units in one day’s time,” Duncan said. “We feel like we’re helping the community that way.”