The lobby emits new-paint smell as Jessica Dulle, executive director of the recently rechristened Strand Center for the Arts, pushes open the theater's front doors. After more than 10 years and about $3.2 million, renovations on the 1924 Greek Revival performance hall in Plattsburgh are finally nearing completion. Though work remains to be done, the hall's interior has reached a point where audiences could enjoy entertainment there.
The stage is finished, rows of brand-new seats line the house, and the historic wall finishings have been painted burgundy and leaf green. A stunning, tiered chandelier made of Swarovski crystals and recreated from a description in a 1920s document, hangs from the ceiling. A rare Wurlitzer organ, one of just 23 in the world, was donated and restored by community volunteers. The curtains and red-and-gold aisle carpeting have been ordered.
In May, the North Country Cultural Center for the Arts, which had fundraised to save the Strand Theatre from a tax sale in 2004, merged with the theater and rebranded it as the Strand Center for the Arts in anticipation of its reopening. "As the Strand Center for the Arts, it's truly a multidisciplinary arts center, and that was one of the long-term goals of the organization," explains Dulle, leading a pair of visitors on a tour of the renovated theater. "To be able to do that, we needed to have a space for our art gallery — we have that next door. We need to have classroom space — that's next door. But the component that was missing was the space for our performances."
The cultural center had its offices and educational facilities in a 1929 post office right next door to the theater. With the official merging, the two buildings take up all of Brinkerhoff Street between Margaret and Oak. "We have a whole city block," says board president Leigh Mundy. "The arts district."
That May also saw Dulle's advent as executive director. The Missouri native's résumé includes an executive director position at Capital City Council on the Arts and an assistant directorship at the National Churchill Museum at Westminster College, both in her home state.
"She has the energy and experience to make this a strong theater business," says Mundy of Dulle. "I'd like to be able to wrap up the construction part so she can take it and run with it."
Mundy and Dulle estimate that an additional $500,000 to $700,000 is needed for in-house sound and light equipment, a stage expansion to accommodate dance shows and a small orchestra pit, among other needs. They expect those funds to be raised within 18 months.
Mundy notes that "most of the generous companies in the area have given and given" to the project over the years. Henceforth, the Strand plans to look farther afield to potential donors in Burlington, Lake Placid and Westport for support.
"We're talking 14 years of fundraising," says Mundy, who's led the board for five of those years. "Most of it was just knocking on doors, explaining to this area what [the theater] would do for it. Kind of like when the Flynn started in Burlington ... The Flynn did a lot for downtown Burlington, and our line was that the Strand could be this anchor and selling point for downtown Plattsburgh."
A 2011 impact study affirmed the point, estimating that the theater, once fully operational, could generate up to $5 million in annual revenue for downtown Plattsburgh in its first few years.
In the meantime, the stage is already in use. Last year the Strand hosted a "hard hat" season while still technically under construction. That included a sold-out screening — yes, all 958 seats — of the silent movie The Phantom of the Opera last October, a nod to the Strand's past as a movie house and an excuse to show off the newly restored organ.
For the Strand's 2014-2015 season, performances continue with a modest summer program that includes "Fête de Danse" in early August. That show incorporates community master ballet classes and contemporary dance performances by the New York- and London-based Gleich Dances, New York's MADboots Dance Company and dancer Rachel Cohen, a Plattsburgh native. A silent-movie screening of Old Ironsides (1926), with accompaniment by organist Peter Edwin Krasinski, follows on August 29.
Starting this summer, students enrolled in the Strand's educational programs can also use the stage. And in November, the Strand will host the inaugural Lake Champlain International Film Festival in partnership with the Plattsburgh Renewal Project. Dulle says the organizers have already received submissions from filmmakers as far away as Japan.
The new ED is also scoping out talented acts at music and performing arts festivals in New York and Montréal. News of the Strand's revitalization, she says, has reached some members of Montréal's artistic community.
"It's wonderful; the artists up there know about the renovation here in Plattsburgh," she says. "It's just a really exciting time."