The State Theatre, located at 109 State Street in downtown Ithaca, is officially reopening on Dec. 5 after being closed to the public for four years.
Historic Ithaca, Inc. the group that currently owns the theatre, will be hosting a “Community Ceremony and Celebration” in honor of the reopening. The event is free and open to the public and marks the end of a long process of intensive structural repair and renovation.
Located just west of what is now the Commons on State Street, the theatre has been an Ithaca landmark since its opening and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1966. Recognized for its architectural ingenuity and aesthetic beauty, the State Theatre was a symbol of regional prosperity and success.
The State Theatre first opened its doors to the public almost 73 years ago, charging 50 cents for an evening showing or 40 cents for a matinee. Equipped with 1,600 seats and an enormous proscenium, the State Theatre hosted big bands, comedy shows, variety acts and also doubled as a movie theater to the Ithaca community.
The original neon sign that adorns the front of the building was the first of its kind in the Ithaca area and has since served as a reminder of the theater’s heyday. In recent year’s that sign has stood in disrepair as did much of the facility, prompting the City of Ithaca to eventually condemn the building in 1997.
The extensive construction, renovation and preservation that has taken place since Historic Ithaca, Inc. purchased the property in 1998 has almost exclusively been aimed at the building’s major structural problems. Most notably, the building’s boiler has been replaced, the roof has been repaired, the wall plaster has been reinforced and the electrical and lighting systems overhauled. Other improvements include a better rigging system for the stage and a smoke detection system.
These repairs and improvements have been labeled by Historic Ithaca, Inc. as “phase one” of the restoration process. The work of the past months has considerably improved the safety and stability of the building but has come with a high price tag. Estimated costs for phase one reach well over one million dollars, of which approximately 80 percent has been garnered through grants and donations.
There has not, however, been a major change in the facility’s physical appearance. Up to this point, the primary concern of Historic Ithaca, Inc. has been to ensure the building’s structural integrity. Steps have been taken to modernize the theater’s safety systems, thus bringing the building into compliance with federal, state and municipal building codes.
The second phase of the restoration will be aimed at cosmetic details such as restoring the original curtain and refurbishing the intricate details of the wall sconces. This second phase will start after the Dec. 5 opening and is projected to be finished by the theater’s 75th anniversary in December 2003.
Costs for this phase of the project are expected to be similarly high, but with the theater up and running, Historic Ithaca, Inc. hopes to balance some of the costs with ticket sales in addition to further donations and grants.
“We’ve had tremendous support from the local business community, municipal and state governments, Cornell, Ithaca College and the local arts community,” said Scott Whitham, executive director of Historic Ithaca, Inc. “Everybody wants to see this succeed.”
Whitham described the outpouring of support from the Cornell community, alluding to the State Theatre’s early ties to the University. “There are [Cornell] emblems throughout the interior,” he said, stating that many of the primary investors in the theater were Cornellians.
The relationship between the State Theatre and Cornell has been recently rekindled as volunteers have spent free time helping with the restoration. Many volunteers from Cornell have been organized and managed by On Site Volunteer Services, an Ithaca-based non-profit organization. In addition to monetary donations and grants, volunteer work has proved to be an important part of the restoration process.
The Dec. 5 opening marks not only the completion of the first phase of the restoration, but also a watershed moment for all of the donors, volunteers and supporters of the project. “We have reached an important moment in this project, a moment of which we can all be proud” said Rich John, president of Historic Ithaca Inc.’s Board of Directors. “We have saved the structure from further decay, made it safe and will open it up.”
In keeping with the State Theatre’s tradition of eclectic stage shows and venues, Historic Ithaca, Inc. has already booked several acts for December. Performances by The Cayuga Chamber Orchestra, the Kitchen Theatre Company, the Ithaca Opera and the Ithaca Ballet are all expected in the coming month.
Archived article by Nate Brown