hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


Arts & Culture April 2016


Revival set for oldest N.Y. theater space

Hudson Opera House begins restoration of long-dormant main hall


Contributing writer



Restoration work began this spring on the long-dormant main performance hall at Hudson Opera House. When the $8 million project is completed next year, a modern, flexible 300-seat theater will be ready to host performances on the landmark building’s second floor. Courtesy photo/Robert Umenhofer

The curtain has risen at Hudson Opera House for the final act of a restoration that has been under way for nearly a quarter-century.

This spring, the nonprofit group that owns the structure announced the start of the largest and most significant phase of the long-running effort – a phase that will lead to reopening the building’s main performance hall.

When construction is complete, the second-floor performance hall will be suitable for use as a modern, intimate and flexible 300-seat theater.

Construction has already started, and supporters expect the work to be completed – and the new space to open -- in the spring of 2017.

The current project will largely complete an initiative launched in 1992 to restore the opera house, which was then an abandoned and decaying 28,000-square-foot structure at 327 Warren St. in downtown Hudson.

Over the past 24 years, individual sections of the opera house have been refurbished and returned to use in phases. The first section opened in 1997. Currently, six rooms on the first floor are used for various purposes.

“The new performance space will take the Hudson Opera House to a different level,” said Gary Schiro, its executive director since 1998. “It will enable us to bring in high-caliber performances that will attract larger audiences -- and productions that require more space to perform.”
Hudson Opera House already has presented a wide range of activities, from concerts and art exhibits to after-school activities, that have stimulated the local cultural scene and community life. Its revival has been tied to Hudson’s downtown renaissance over the past two decades.
“The opera house has been a tremendous anchor and catalyst for revitalization in Hudson,” Schiro said.

And when the new performance space opens, he predicted, the opera house will begin to attract interest and audiences from a much wider region.

The opera house is conducting an $8.5 million capital campaign to support the current phase of its restoration effort. Schiro said about $7 million has already been committed, and efforts are under way to raise the remaining balance.


Building with many roles
Hudson Opera House, built in 1855 as the Hudson’s city hall, contains the oldest surviving theater space in New York.

In addition to its original role as Hudson’s main government office building, the structure served multiple purposes in its early decades: It was a library and also housed the First National Bank of Hudson.

It also was a venue for public meetings, concerts, theatrical performances, social events and other community activities as diverse as poultry shows and art exhibits.

The Hudson River School painters who lived and worked in the region displayed their paintings there. Many well-known figures of the era gave lectures and readings, including author Bret Harte, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Susan B. Anthony and Theodore Roosevelt. It became known as the Hudson Opera House in the 1880s, although it continued to serve as city’s government center as well.

The end of that era for the facility occurred in 1962, when a new City Hall was opened farther up Warren Street. After a period as a Moose Lodge, the opera house building was sold to an out-of-town developer who essentially put it into mothballs. It sat unused and neglected for nearly 30 years.

“For a long time, it was an empty and decaying eyesore, and the only occupants were birds,” Schiro said. At the time, a number of other buildings along lower Warren Street also were neglected or abandoned.

In 1992, a group of community members formed an organization, Hudson Opera House Inc., to acquire, restore and return the building to public use. After an initial fund-raising campaign, they began the work in phases.

Before the current phase, more than $3 million had been invested to stabilize the building and reopen the first floor. The first restored room, the West Room, opened in 1997.

In subsequent years, other rooms were restored, and there were other repairs to the structure, its operating systems, bathrooms, architectural detailing and other elements and features. A new roof was installed in 2008.

As these improvements were made, the building began to come alive with activity. Schiro said the progress has been especially impressive considering the challenges the opera house’s supporters had to overcome.

“It was difficult for many people to envision this when it all started, because the building had fallen into such bad shape for so long,” he said. “This section of downtown was also struggling. There were a lot of skeptics. But the naysayers were proven wrong.”

The organization currently has an 18-member board of directors and a staff of five. It also relies heavily on volunteers. Schiro said the opera house expects to expand its staff when the new performance space opens.

The opera house currently hosts about 1,125 events and programs annually, including concerts, readings, lectures, exhibitions, theater and dance presentations, after-school programs, workshops and classes. It also sponsors the annual Winter Walk on Warren Street. And its facilities are made available for rental for events such as private parties and corporate meetings.


Changing with a city
Since the opera house first reopened in 1998, Hudson has undergone a larger metamorphosis that has included the opening of other performance venues as the city has become a center of culture, shopping and nightlife.

“Hudson has evolved and is now a community with the third highest per-capita proportion of people working in the creative economy, behind Brooklyn and Taos, New Mexico,” Schiro said. “That has been great for us, because it builds the overall audience in the city.”

Hudson’s overall revitalization has also brought concerns about gentrification in a city with wide disparities in economic status. But Schiro emphasized that the Hudson Opera House has remained firmly rooted in the community, rather than being an upscale amenity for the affluent. Most of its offerings are either free or have moderately priced admissions.

“Our diversity and accessibility is one of our hallmarks,” he said. “We’re open to all genres and cultures, and about 70 percent of our programs are free. We’re a place for artists from the city to share their work with audiences, as well as a place for after-school programs and other activities.”

In addition to maintaining and managing the facility, Hudson Opera House is a producing organization. Schiro explained that although it works in collaboration with other organizations to create and organize programs, the opera house is the actual producer of the majority of activities that take place there.

“Our role is to actively curate what happens here,” he said.
During construction, the opera house will be open but with some restrictions.
“We’re doing some programs here and also arranging others at different venues while the work is going on,” Schiro explained.

The project will include rehabilitation of the performance hall, mezzanine, stage and support spaces, including five dressing rooms, a lighting and sound booth, green room, laundry and accessible restrooms.

The performance space will be flexible, with seating that can be moved to accommodate different types of shows, including multimedia productions and theater in the round.

In addition, an elevator tower will be added on one corner of the building to make it handicapped accessible and to comply with requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

There will also be some additional cosmetic improvements and other upgrades throughout the building. Work will include lead and asbestos abatement and new electrical, fire protection and heating and air conditioning systems

The familiar features and basic appearance of the building will be preserved. The current proscenium arch and raked wooden floor stage were late 19th century additions and will be kept. New elements will be incorporated, but the facility’s owners aim to retain its overall historic character.

Marilyn Kaplan, of Preservation Architecture in Albany, is the lead architect for the project -- a role she has had in all phases of the restoration since 1993. The primary contractor is Consigli Construction NY, which has area offices in Dutchess County and Albany.

The $7 million secured so far for this phase of the restoration has come from a combination of sources, including public support from Empire State Development, the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, and the state Council on the Arts. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has also provided investment through its Community Facilities program, which officials say was secured with assistance from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.

The public funds have been augmented by private donations, including gifts from the organization’s board of directors, and other contributions and grants from foundations and individuals including major gifts from the Educational Foundation of America and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation.