HUDSON–On April 22 the friends group of Hudson Hall, the historic building formerly known as the Opera House, celebrated the successful completion of renovations and improvements to the second-floor theater. The event also marked 25 years of collaboration on a project that has transformed the community and rescued one of its most important monuments.
The oldest surviving theater in New York might not have endured if a small group of volunteers had not been inspired by its potential.
“It’s been a long time coming, it’s a good reason for celebration. It took persistence,” said board member Ellen Thurston.
The 172-year-old Greek Revival style building first opened in 1855 and became integral to the civic and cultural life in Hudson. In its heyday the second floor theater, which can seat 300 people, hosted lectures by President Teddy Roosevelt, Ralph Waldo Emerson, suffragist and abolitionist Susan B. Anthony, Clarence Darrow and poet Bret Hart. Frederic Church and Sanford Gifford exhibited paintings there.
Temperance advocates and vaudeville performers, acrobats, tight-rope walkers and magicians performed there. High school graduations and functions involving marathon runners, golfers, dogs, livestock, billiard players were staged and, starting in the 1890s, movies, were screened. City Hall, the Police Department, and businesses including the First National Bank once occupied the first floor.
The structure fell into disrepair in the last century after City Hall moved out. But in 1992 a small group of neighbors–some of them long-time residents and others new arrivals–formed a non-profit organization, Hudson Opera House, Inc., to purchase the building by taking out a $35,000 mortgage. They knew a full scale renovation would cost millions and would take years but they persevered.
“The building was full of garbage, and pigeons were living upstairs,” Ms. Thurston recalled.
At the time there was very little commercial activity in the immediate neighborhood on the 300 block of Warren Street. It was hard to find a restaurant anywhere in Hudson but farther up the street was Charleston, where owner Carole Clark hosted an open table on Monday evenings. Some who eventually became opera house volunteers occasionally met there and discussed the building and later developed the idea of Winter Walk, the annual event that, for over 20 years, has been instrumental in promoting community and commerce in Hudson.
In the 1980s and into the ’90s, despite the installation of traditional style street lights and the removal of overhead wiring, which imparted a historic look, an air of abandonment hovered over Warren Street. Storefronts stood empty, the result of business moving to nearby shopping plazas.
Ms. Thurston credits the arrival of antique dealers in the 1990s with revitalizing business on Warren Street. And for its first five years the non-profit Hudson Opera House group operated out of borrowed office space and focused on raising money. They sold bricks in the building to donor-sponsors and developed their always-sold-out Movable Feast dinner event, where individuals host small dinners then everyone gets together for dessert at the Opera House. In 1997, according to Ms. Thurston, at the behest of Board members Norman Poesner and Janet Ebel, they opened part of the first floor for exhibitions and performances.
Hiring an executive director was a leap that catalyzed the next stage of progress. “Before the arrival of Gary Shiro, we were raising money to stage the next fundraiser,” Ms. Thurston, said, adding that Mr. Shiro’s changed that as he became the face and voice of the organization. Under leadership fundraising efforts and programming, by 2009 programs were attracting 48,000 people its programs, had created 52 jobs, with most of the $2 million spent up to that point having been spent locally.
The group has now raised close to $14 million total from public, private and foundation sources to fund a new roof, repairs to the entry, facade, and fire escape. A new elevator housed in its own tower has made the second-floor theater accessible, and modern wiring, lighting and sound systems have given the city of Hudson a modern theater with flexible seating capable presenting a variety of performances and events.
“Generous and talented people have kept coming forward to help us realize our goals in this remarkable project,” said Mr. Shiro. One couple donated a concert grand piano.
Hudson artist Bill Borman singlehandedly took on the task of re-gilding and recreating the stenciled decorative border of the proscenium arch. He devised a design inspired by the original style, which he identified with the help of archival photographs as “mid to late Victorian, evocative of wallpapers that the English designer Christopher Dresser created in the late 1800’s.” The gold leaf, distressed around the edge evokes the building’s long history.
“I live in Hudson…and was thrilled to have a hand in a project as important and transformative as this one,” said Mr. Borman.
“This is a community building,” Mr. Shiro said during a recent interview. “The ultimate goal is building a stronger community where diversity is reflected and respected.” That’s been his guiding principal since he arrived in 1998.
He opened the space to activities ranging from figure drawing sessions with a model and art workshops for children, to jazz, classical, and folk music performances, theater and readings. The unimproved theater became a space for artist residencies.
“Within two years we had two restaurants nearby and several more opened shortly after,” said Mr. Shiro.
Going forward, he said, the challenge will be to “increase our capacity to operate a bigger building and attract a larger audience.” An Empire State Development Grant received this year has allowed the organization to hire full-time development director Rebecca Gee.
“We are on the brink of a new era for the project. It’s an exciting time for the whole region,” he said.
Hudson Hall is located at 327 Warren Street, Hudson. More information is at 518 822-1438 or http://hudsonoperahouse.org/.