September 11, 2000

C.U. to Move Events to Commons?

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The historic State Theater downtown will re-open next Spring for events for the first time since 1997, before Bailey Hall closes for renovations in 2002. But, will the various Cornell organizations that use Bailey for concerts and lectures, decide to temporarily relocate their events to the theater located on the Commons?

Historic Ithaca, Inc., the owner of the State Theater, is currently in discussions with the administrators of the Cornell Concert Series. While no contract has been signed, the organizations have a “gentleman’s agreement” regarding future use of the theater, according to Cornell Concert Series manager Richard Riley.

“As recently as last Friday, I found out that Historic Ithaca would be able to commit the theater’s space for 2002,” Riley said. “I’m glad to know that I have the opportunity [to use the space] and will likely bring at least one or two artists [to the theater] in Spring 2001.”

This tentative agreement could provide the Concert Series with a necessary venue while the audiences play a major part in revitalizing the theater and the downtown area.

Up until the 1960s and 70s, the State Theater was very popular in Ithaca.

“[The theater] has been a favorite of Cornell Students since the 1920s,” Scott Whitham ’90 of Historic Ithaca said. “I’ve talked with many alumni who have the fondest memories of the theater — it was where you went to see the big bands.”

However by the mid-90s, deferred maintenance projects had taken their toll on the building. Historic Ithaca, Inc. bought the State Theater in 1998, after it had been condemned by the city because of structural code violations, Whitham said.

The theater, which originally opened in 1928 as a movie and vaudeville house, is the most ornate theater in the area. Its walls are coated with gilt and plaster work, with a ceiling of twinkling stars, incorporating elements of the Moorish and Renaissance Revival Styles.

In 1999, the American Institute of Architects identified the theater as one of the most significant architectural landmarks in New York State.

“[State Theater] is the last performance stage of that size and type in the area, and when [the restorations] are done, it will be the biggest and the best,” Whitham said.

Historic Ithaca is raising money to pay for a two phase restoration project, the first of which will correct code violations. Phase I will allow the theater to open in spring 2001. So far, approximately $800,000 has been raised.

Bailey Hall is also due for renovations. According to Riley, a 1995 study recommended replacing all of the seats in the downstairs area, removing around 500 seats. In addition, heating, cooling, and ventilation will be changed. The lighting and sound capabilities will be brought up to modern standards.

The connection between the two venues, though accidental, bodes well for cooperation between Cornell and Historic Ithaca. Yet nothing has been made official.

“There is risk involved in moving anything off campus when people are used to having it on-campus,” Riley said. “[Also, the theater] is unique and wonderful, but it is also very modest … [there] is not an endless array of possibilities.”

Riley said that State Theater would not be suited for artists with a large multimedia components to their acts because of limitations in its capabilities. The theater would be more suited to big name soloists with simpler technical needs.

Not all organizations that use Bailey are in talks with Historic Ithaca.

For example, the Cornell Concert Commission is looking into using other buildings on campus when Bailey closes. It is considering using State Theater, but it is not their main option now, according to Cornell Concert Commission Executive Director Nicole Pinochet ’01.

Historic Ithaca hopes that more organizations will use the theater.

Such relocation when Bailey closes would help the theater get back on its feet and perhaps would contribute to the economic redevelopment of the downtown, Whitham said.

“By committing myself and my audience for 12 to 18 months, it will help State Theater gain legitimacy in the area,” Riley said. “[The theater] will be able to say that the Cornell Concert Series plays here and you can too.”

Archived article by Eve Steele