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Royal Cloyd, 86, founding director of Boston Center for the Arts

gilbert e. friedberg/globe staff/file 1970

Royal Cloyd saw potential when others did not in the South End, where eight buildings, including the Cyclorama (above), now compose the Boston Center for the Arts.

At a point in the 1960s when many considered the South End unsafe and rundown, Royal Cloyd envisioned a mecca for the city’s artistic community.

As founding director of the Boston Center for the Arts, he helped convert a series of unused and underappreciated buildings into a campus of theaters, galleries, and studios.

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“A lot of people said it wouldn’t work, that people wouldn’t visit the South End because it was too dangerous,’’ Mr. Cloyd told the Globe in 1980, when the center held a 10th birthday party. “But it’s worked beyond our wildest dreams.’’

Mr. Cloyd died of cardiac arrest Feb. 23 in Havasu Regional Medical Center in Lake Havasu City, Ariz. He was 86 and in retirement had divided his time between North Berwick, Maine, and Mexico.

“The BCA has been supporting working artists for over 40 years because of Royal Harrison Cloyd’s vision and tireless work in founding this organization,’’ said Veronique Le Melle, the organization’s current executive director.

Mr. Cloyd believed in the neighborhood so much that he moved his young family from a Beacon Hill apartment to a house in Union Park in the South End in the years before the arts center began to emerge.

“At the time the South End was decaying,’’ said his son, Aaron of North Berwick.

He recalled that when Mr. Cloyd and his wife applied for a loan to buy a home, “the bank manager did not understand why they would want to live there.’’

His parents saw “beautiful Victorian townhouses that could be restored,’’ Aaron Cloyd said. “So my dad, along with others, helped restore the neighborhood. They got the city to stop tearing down buildings.’’

Mr. Cloyd encouraged the city to purchase a 4-acre parcel of land that once was home to a flower market and included the Cyclorama, which was built in 1884 and contained a painting of the Battle of Gettysburg by Paul Philippoteaux.

Under Mr. Cloyd’s guidance, the block bordered by Warren Avenue and Berkeley, Clarendon, and Tremont streets became the Boston Center for the Arts, and he was its first executive director.

A 1976 report by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Educational Facilities Laboratories called it “one of the most extensive and astonishing uses of found space for the arts in this country.’’

Mr. Cloyd also had served as chairman of the South End’s urban redevelopment commission. By creating the Boston Center for the Arts, he saved some buildings from destruction.

The center’s eight buildings are now home to the Boston Ballet, theaters, rehearsal studios of various sizes, and artists’ studios.

“In talking with artists I found that what they need is space for rehearsal, practicing, building sets, the behind-the-scenes things,’’ he told the Globe in 1981. “Opening night is really the easiest part.’’

Born in Watseka, Ill., Mr. Cloyd grew up in Hillsboro, Ill.

Mr. Cloyd, whose father was a minister, enlisted in the Army after high school and served during World War II. Afterward, he attended the University of Illinois, where he met Nancy Jean Evans. They married in 1948.

Mr. Cloyd graduated with a bachelor’s degree and a master’s in education and took a civilian job as education director at Chanute Air Force Base in Illinois.

By the 1960s he and his family were in Boston, where he worked in an administrative role for the Unitarian Church during the era when the Unitarian and Universalist churches consolidated to become the Unitarian Universalist Association.

While living in the South End, Mr. Cloyd befriended immigrant artists, including famed Hungarian pianist Tibor Szász.

In e-mails, Szász called Mr. Cloyd “one of my closest friends’’ and said he lived with the Cloyds while studying piano at New England Conservatory.

“The secret of his relation with artists was, I think, that he was truly interested in them as artists and human beings, and one could immediately feel this interest when you met him, even for just a few minutes,’’ Szász wrote. “As a result, you opened up, and the more you opened up, the more he became interested in you.’’

In 1987, Mr. Cloyd said he would retire from the Boston Center for the Arts to serve as the center’s president emeritus and a consultant for programs and development.

“Much has been done; there is much to be done,’’ he told the Globe. “My greatest achievement is that artists feel enough at home to stay and work here.’’

After retiring, Mr. Cloyd moved with his wife to North Berwick, where they refurbished a cider mill into a home while spending winters in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, and Mexico City. Mrs. Cloyd died in 1995.

In North Berwick, Mr. Cloyd became director of the local historical society, sometimes sporting a top hat or a flowing scarf as he went around town. He also helped publish a series of short biographies about notable residents and hosted an annual jazz fund-raiser at his home.

Last year he wrote, directed, and produced a play about Robert Lincoln, a son of President Lincoln, which featured a cast of local actors.

In addition to his son, Mr. Cloyd leaves a brother, Charles of Lake Havasu City, Ariz., and a grandson.

“I saw Royal as a true aesthete, one who has a passion for the arts,’’ the Rev. Howard Hunter said during a memorial service in the Unitarian Universalist Church in Sanford, Maine. “He identified with those who strove for artistic expression, whatever the medium.’’

Lucia Nelson of North Berwick, who worked with Mr. Cloyd on historical society matters, said he was “a wonderful raconteur, always telling the funniest stories about people he knew in Boston.’’

“There was only one Royal Cloyd,’’ she added. “He was just a remarkable individual.’’

Kathleen McKenna may be reached at kmck66@comcast.net.

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