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Cornell preservation students and alumni revive historic Catskill theater

Emily Sheckels
Jonathan Gunderlach, HPP '06
Emily Sheckels, HPP '06, removes old glazing from a window at the Shelburne Playhouse as part of window restoration work.

FERNDALE, N.Y. -- The Shelburne Playhouse, one of the Catskill Mountains' remaining jewels from the golden age of small resort hotels, was repaired and stabilized by a volunteer group of Cornell University historic preservation planning (HPP) students and alumni -- along with some local helpers -- April 15-17.

In its heyday the Ferndale, N.Y., playhouse must have looked like the kind of theater setting that would have kindled a romance between Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey in a film like "Dirty Dancing" -- or turned up in an early novel by Philip Roth.

Today it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is one of the few remaining structures in Sullivan County that date back to a time when hundreds of small hotels, mostly catering to Jewish vacationers from New York City, dotted the mountains around New York state's epicenter. Constructed in the late 1930s, the playhouse was the social hall of the Shelburne Hotel, providing a place to play shuffleboard, Ping Pong and mahjong, learn the Lindy Hop, listen to the velvet tones of a cocktail orchestra or laugh at jokes like, "Take my wife ... please."

The hotel, which was built in 1922, was destroyed by fire in 1965 and the playhouse has sat vacant ever since -- falling prey to the elements. That is until it was purchased recently by Catskill residents Maurice Gerry and Allan Berube, who saw the glamour under the chipped paint and dulled floorboards and an opportunity to restore the theater to some of its former luster. Once the renovations are completed, they hope to reopen it as a multi-use community facility for shows, benefits, parties, movies, weddings, plays, dances, readings and workshops.

About 40 volunteers took part in the work weekend project, most of them students and graduates of the HPP program, which is in the Department of City and Regional Planning in the College of Architecture, Art and Planning. They scrubbed clean the interior wood walls, restained trim around doors and windows, removed old window glazing and hazardous wiring from antiquated lighting fixtures, painted the building's wood and stucco exterior and removed debris from beneath the performance stage. "They brought vitality back to the building," said Berube

"The two most significant projects involved the riser boards in front of the stage and the doorway openings at the rear of the stage," reported Nicholas Hayward, student co-organizer. Some of the riser boards, which had been added later than others, were wider, creating a non-uniform look, and also were inadequately supported, he explained. The volunteers removed them, put in new supports, then new boards that matched the dimensions of the originals. They also replaced missing doors in the rear of the stage.

Cornell Historic Preservation Planning Work Weekend is an annual event in which students and alumni from the College of Architecture, Art and Planning work together to help repair and stabilize a historic structure. Past projects have included the "Town and Country" building in Liberty, N.Y., not far from the Shelburne Playhouse; the Civil War-era Fort Totten Battery in New York City; the early 20th-century arts colony Byrdcliffe; and a hospital building on Ellis Island.

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