Arm of the Sea Theater seeking to make a permanent home in Saugerties

Patrick Wadden at the future site of the Tidewater Center. (Photo by Christina Coulter)

An abandoned paper mill from the late 19th century that has been of late a waterfront canvas at Tina Chorvas Park for graffiti has been fenced off and slated as the future permanent home for the nomadic puppeteers of the Arm of the Sea Theater and an educational site for children. The site, which operated as a paper mill called Sheffield Mills circa 1880 with a legacy of coal ash and heavy metals, will be no easy feat to acclimate to its new purpose. Theater director Patrick Wadden and engineer Jolanda Jansen aired their ambitious plan for site clean up and later development at a recent village planning board meeting.

A sketch plan of the proposed Tidewater Center shows performance space for music, drama and the troupe’s giant puppets. There will be a water playground, an aquatic classroom for river education, public access for tidewater fishing, staging areas for science projects and a kayak launch and way station for water travelers.


Wadden, the director of the Arm of the Sea Theater, said the project would be developed in phases. Engineer Jolanda Jansen said availability of funding would dictate the timing of the phases, with completion of the cleanup of the property — much has been done already — and construction of a canvas building comprising phase 1.

Susan Murphy, the president of the Cantine’s Island Homeowners Association, which is adjacent to the proposed Tidewater Center, said the community welcomes Arm of the Sea as a neighbor. “In 1994, when our community was still in development, before any of the houses had been built, Arm of the Sea began using a studio on our property for creating and rehearsing their shows. They do so to this day, and will continue until they move into their new quarters,” she said.

“We’ve been [walking] through this neglected property for 20 years and it became a way for us to enact something in the real world that we symbolically enact in our theater productions — transformation,” said Wadden. “What we do is all about transformation and a more livable future.”

Murphy and several other community residents are active in the Arm of the Sea project. Murphy herself has been on the board of the current property owners — Sloop Clearwater — and “I have held a vision for the site since the Clearwater acquired it in 2000.”

“As an individual and as president of the Cantine’s Island Homeowners Association I want all to know that we are fully in support of the plan to build what will become a treasure for the Village of Saugerties. To have the last unclaimed piece of the Saugerties waterfront become a center for arts, culture and history will be a dream come true.”

Cantine’s Island homes are fairly close to the Arm of the Sea storage and rehearsal area, and they sound from their site has not been an annoyance for the community, Murphy said.

Anna Landewe is a volunteer with the Saugerties Lighthouse Conservancy. “I just wanted to say how much faith I have in the effort of Arm of the Sea Theater. They have decades of dedication to the community. We see from the lighthouse the local students come down for a first hand experience with the river; They study science there, and involving arts within that study in an experiential way — we would be so lucky as a community to have them.”

Some details of the presentation are superseded by changes made in response to a previous planning board meeting, said engineer Jolanda Jansen, but the presentation would be the original proposal; the updated version would be presented next month. The public hearing will remain open for next month’s meeting on Aug. 14; members of the public can attend and ask questions, she said.

The property has long been abandoned, and “young people, teenagers, would find their way in there, go and play in the ruins and put graffiti over things. I don’t think anybody has ever been hurt there, but every time I went there I said, ‘Oh my, we’re very lucky that nothing has happened.’”

Clearwater acquired the property with the intention of building a winter port, but the water turned out to be too shallow, so the sloop spends the cold months in Kingston. “Arm of the Sea is in contract to buy the property, but they are not the owner yet,” Jansen said. However, Arm of the Sea is the applicant for the site plan approval.

“Their idea was to make it safe by fencing off the ruins, and to make it safe by putting a layer of gravel or dirt over the existing soil because … there is some heavy metal from past activities, and we don’t want access to heavy metals, and we don’t want children licking the dirt,” Jansen said.

Because the land is below the 100-year flood plain, some of it would be underwater after a heavy rain, Jansen said. To protect permanent structures from possible flood damage, they would be raised above the parking lot level, which could safely take flooding. A former concrete coal bin on the property could provide the basis for a raised platform for buildings, she said.

“It’s a place that bears the weight and wounds and unintended consequences of human enterprise,” said Wadden. “There are a whole bunch of steps that have to be taken before we can let people on the property … We have a lot to figure out, we’re focusing our 2019 campaign on renovating the coal bin.”

Wadden said that just the coal bin renovation would cost $45,000, $20,000 of which has already been raised according to

The plan posted at the meeting shows the whole project, Jansen said. The first phase would consist of a parking lot, one small building on a raised concrete platform for storage and items that will be needed as the property develops and an awning in the coal bin for the first performances. “All the other buildings will come in phase 2,” she said.

The other buildings would include a theater space raised above the 100-year flood plain, and a classroom space and an art studio. The engineer also discussed some details of proposed landscaping. If permission for a classroom right on the water can be obtained, that would also be desirable, she said.

“We’re story tellers; we’ve been at it for 35 years, and imagining this space as a grand place to tell the story of this place — its geology, its biology, archaeology, industrial history, the life of the current community and the life of the river. We plan to do that through the arts, through the sciences, and we’re building a very modest scale year-round facility,” Wadden said. Programs could include arts activities, performances, exhibitions, classes, rehearsals.

“We hope to run a summer camp there; citizen-science programs; projects; we hope to be able to launch there, use it as a platform for going out into the estuary and helping to restore it,” Wadden said.

A waterworks playground would stand in the center of the complex, Wadden said. “This is a playground inspired by the historic mills of Saugerties, which were water powered, and it would be a chance for oldsters and youngsters to see how humans have made water work for us, with all kinds of small scale ways of letting water down and turning things.”

Describing the water flowing from the high peaks of the Catskills watershed “plunging over the dam and meeting and mixing with the tidewater and really, the waters of the whole world,” Wadden said. “It is a junction of the local and the universal, and that is why it is such a wonderful place.”

Following the public hearing, Jansen told the board that the first phase of development will include “what we know we can do,” with further development as funding becomes available. Jansen said she dropped off sketches of the building the organization believes it can begin with now. While the Arm of the Sea representatives would be willing to come to the August meeting, the plan for phase one may take until September, she said. The phase one building shown on the plan is a canvas building, Wadden said.

– David Gordon and Christina Coulter