As with most other performing arts venues in our region, the flow of live concerts at Woodstock’s Kleinert-James Arts Center and stageworks at the Byrdcliffe Theater dried up more than a year ago, due to the pandemic. But the gradual arrival of the Covid vaccines has got hosts for such events thinking about their resumption. Governor Andrew Cuomo announced on March 3 that theaters and concert halls could begin admitting audiences at 33 percent capacity effective April 2, with a limit of 100 people indoors or 200 outdoors. Not every venue will be able to break even presenting live performances under those limitations, but it’s clear that a process has begun that will make it possible for us all to see plays and hear music again, up close and personal, in the foreseeable future. Even for introverts and homebodies, that’s happy news.
Many such venues have been putting the unwanted hiatus to good use by doing the kinds of renovations that tend to get postponed during normal times, when they need to keep the audiences (and ticket-sales cash flow) coming in on a regular basis. For the Woodstock-Byrdcliffe Guild, the excuse to fix up the venerable Byrdcliffe Theater comes as just one keystone in a multiyear capital campaign to make the entire arts colony site a year-round operation. The timing was right, and some grant funding became available, and by the time you read this, the new superinsulated roof will be almost completed. For the first time since it was built by Bolton Brown in 1902, the theater is going to have heat in winter and air conditioning in summer. It’ll become a truly comfortable place to go see a show – or rehearse one, or teach your dance company some new choreography, or livestream a performance, or stage a wedding.
“Our vision is to rehabilitate the building in such a way that its functionality is enhanced, but its Byrdcliffe aesthetic is maintained,” says Kevin Hartmann as he leads Hudson Valley One staff on a tour of the work-in-progress. “The building is going to look exactly the same, but it can be used year-round.”
That’s not to say that there aren’t going to be aesthetic upgrades as well as functional ones; but the changes in the rustic structure’s look are subtle. Wood-plank floors will be refinished after saggy spots are replaced, for example. Acoustically deadening, rain-damaged, black-mold-infested sheetrock in the ceiling of the large performance space will be pulled down to expose the original wooden rafters and pine sheathing. The original color scheme – dark-stained pine siding, forest green roof shingles and trim painted a color officially named Byrdcliffe blue – will be maintained.
At the rear of the building, what Hartmann terms a “poorly executed addition,” an afterthought from the 1940s or ‘50s, has been demolished and replaced with a slightly larger room that will house bathrooms, a dressing room and an office. While excavating to pour a new concrete floor with radiant heating, the contractors also dug trenches and laid perforated pipe that will drain water flowing down the hillside away from the building. Bluestone terraces and a pea gravel-surfaced “hangout area” will enhance the usefulness of this more private side of the theater.
Many of the most impactful improvements, in terms of the building’s utility, will be hidden from public view: high-density Hunter foam panels under the new roof and blown cellulose insulation in the wall cavities; a small “mech room” housing a new propane-fired boiler; “high-velocity, low-pressure” air handlers in wall chases. New wiring and LED lighting will make an enormous difference in putting the building’s 400-amp electrical service to work efficiently enough to support a ten-gig network that will allow full Internet and streaming. “We pulled all the electrical. It was a rats’ nest,” says Hartmann.
The historic multi-pane windows that characterize the front of the theater, providing the diffuse north light so prized by artists, are being salvaged. As we look on, project manager Mark Lund is restoring old sashes and fabricating storm panels in the old style — true divided lights in mortise-and-tenon frames — to winterize the windows, repurposing “as much of the original glass as possible,” with its charming, slightly wavy internal patterns. Bluestone ramps that harmonize with the existing dry-laid stone walls and terraces will make the front entrance to the theater handicapped-accessible, and a couple of small, weedy cedar trees that have overgrown the stone stairs will be removed.
All these adaptations represent a compromise between historic preservation and “green” architecture that took the Byrdcliffe Board of Directors some time to agree upon, according to Katharine McKenna, board member and chair of the Property Committee. But it was all part of a process that had been under discussion for years, fueled by the need for more reliable income streams to maintain the 1,500-acre site and its dozens of rustic buildings, many of them in advanced states of disrepair and few of them winterized. “We realized that we were not going to be sustainable, the way it was being run,” McKenna explains. “We put together a task force, sat down and came up with what we call ‘a new focus on an old vision.’”
The consensus of the group was that there was a mandate to “involve the entire campus in the AiR [artists-in-residence] program,” she continues. All the salvageable buildings needed to be generating income year-round, and that meant a phased, comprehensive winterization effort. Part of the problem was that the most habitable buildings largely housed artists on annual leases, who brought in their own furniture and didn’t always treat the facilities as if they belonged to a not-for-profit organization. McKenna tells of one tenant who nailed an empty tuna can to the façade of his cottage to use as an ashtray, for example.
Within the next year or so, as their leases expire, the last of these longtime residents will have to move on. All residencies will be limited to a maximum of five months, with one, three and four months being more of the norm. That will allow breaks during which the living and working spaces can be upgraded and winterized — a few each year as funding permits. “We can double the income on each building,” McKenna says. “This is a cohesive plan. It’s a huge project.”
Besides the theater, where work is expected to be completed by May or June, several other storied buildings have already been renovated: Varenka, Angelus and Little Angelus are “coming online soon,” and the Farmhouse, formerly the home of Hervey White, is “up and running.” White Pines, the flagship building that was the original house of Byrdcliffe founder Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead, is rented out as a wedding and party venue, but, McKenna says, “We need to think much bigger about it.”
Actualizing this grand plan costs a lot of money, and so far, the board has managed to raise about $600,000 from capital campaign donors, most recently including the Wood Dock Foundation. They’re eyeing a National Park Service grant to rehabilitate the Villetta, which is still in active use for one-month residencies despite being “run-down,” in McKenna’s words. “Despite the shape it’s in, it’s fully booked. Artists love coming to Byrdcliffe. We want to keep it rustic, to keep the feeling of Woodstock alive.”
The Byrdcliffe Theater will soon be welcoming the general public to live performances again, and offering new possibilities for artists’ use, particularly with its high-tech livestreaming studio. Two dance companies have already booked the space for the summer of 2021. And the more these buildings are rented out, the more funds become available to reclaim the entire historic site. “All it takes is money to do it,” says McKenna. “We already have a plan. We really feel clear about how this is supposed to go.”
To learn more about the Byrdcliffe arts colony and its colorful history, or download a map to take a walking tour, or donate to its operation and renovation, visit www.woodstockguild.org.