The news is out.
Yes, Lizzie Vann, owner of Bearsville Center, including the Bear Café, Bear Cantina and the Bearsville Theater, as well as the legendary 59 Tinker Street site of the Café Espresso (which houses a small version of the original) is buying the former Lasher Funeral Home at 100 Tinker Street.
And no, she is not tearing it down, nor is she altering the configuration of buildings on the property, which is adjacent to the current Woodstock Library.
In her news release announcing the contract to buy the property (closing is scheduled for early May) Vann says, “She will retain the architectural integrity of the buildings. Her plan includes workspaces, affordable housing, a gallery/café and limited future lodging in the main home. The greenspace will become part of the Pollinator Pathway plan promoted by the Woodstock Land Conservancy, and the history of the property will be respected and on display to the public…”
In an interview, Vann, whose renovation of the Bearsville Center property had stirred some controversy, said “I’m actually a little nervous about it because it’s such a beautiful property and it’s so central to Woodstock and the look and feel of Woodstock, that I want to do this absolutely right. So yes, I’m a little nervous about it but I’m also really excited.”
The property consists of four buildings. As you walk along Tinker Street (or drive by) you are struck by the astonishing grace of a huge yellow Victorian roadside home, adorned with a wrap-around porch. There is a second building where most funerals were conducted, that could perhaps be used as “artisan and workforce housing.” And there are two interconnected barns, that “may be repurposed as gallery and performance space, as well as housing a small café.”
Two acres in the rear of the property bordering on Orchard Lane, of what was a 4.81 acre parcel, were subdivided and sold separately to a group of neighbors, who aim to keep them forever wild.
Woodstock Town Historian Richard Heppner provides us with a bit of the history of the property.
“The Lasher family arrived in Woodstock just prior to the Civil War,” Heppner writes. “The family home and its adjoining property — which was at the center of a large family farm — was constructed in the 1860s. In addition to farming, the family also operated as ‘teamsters,’ providing teams of horses or oxen to haul freight to or from the train in West Hurley or to the Hudson River ports in Kingston and Saugerties. In the 1880s, the family entered the funeral business and, when Henry Bovee, the only other undertaker in Woodstock closed his operation, the Lashers carried on as sole undertakers in Woodstock. The funeral home remained as the only such operation in Woodstock since that time.
“Victor Lasher, born in 1889 (hence the date on the building), took over the operation of the Lasher Funeral Home from his father in 1914 and operated the business for 45 years until his retirement. In addition to his professional obligations, Mr. Lasher served as a commissioner of the Woodstock Fire Department and as a member of the Kingston Lodge No. 10 F&AM. Victor Lasher was married to his wife Edith (Risely) for 59 years. Ownership of the property and the business eventually passed to Robert Boyd and, from Boyd, to Ken Peterson. Peterson died in 2019.”
Vann picks up the story.
“Once the Peterson family realized that they could no longer continue running the business and the property stood vacant, a sale understandably became their sole option. I want to offer the Town an alternative use that keeps this as a beautiful open space, in the heart of the community.”
In 2021, the property was listed for sale at $2.5 million. Vann declined to reveal the price she is paying Janet Peterson, the sole remaining owner. The property is in the Hamlet Commercial District.
Back in 2021, the town formed a Lasher Property Working Group that was asked to find uses for the property. The group has since disbanded but Deborah DeWan, a long-time environmental activist who chaired the group, is interested in the plans.
“The Lasher Working Group looked at the Lasher Property in great depth, and hoped our efforts could help bring a positive alternative to an inappropriate fate for this iconic property by shining a light on its potential community-based uses and its historic importance,” DeWan writes. “While our role on behalf of the Town was only to evaluate and recommend to the Town Board, since we disbanded, Lasher’s fate has been in limbo but the concern in the community has remained.
“Hearing of Lizzie Vann’s pending purchase and plans, I am very encouraged by the vision she is articulating for the Lasher Property, which seems to align well with the direction our Lasher Working Group was seeking to advance — shared workspaces, artist, writer and music studios, gallery space and much needed workforce housing.”
Vann will soon be the owner of three major pillars of the Woodstock community, not to mention commerce. There is the aforementioned former home of the original Café Espresso at 59 Tinker Street and the soon to be closed upon Lasher property.
Then there’s the Bearsville Center at 291 Tinker Street, which has always been a problematic fiscal puzzle. Vann has spent a considerable fortune renovating the five main buildings on the property. How is it doing now?
“Bearsville had been through a horrible period before I bought it. It was neglected, there was not enough money coming in to take care of it. There were also shenanigans going on that I don’t even understand. So when I bought it,it was in a horrible state and then as I started to renovate it, we also had a pandemic, which didn’t help because things were difficult to get ahold of…and there wasn’t any labor, and on and on…
“I feel like I have this huge Rubik’s Cube and I just keep clicking and clicking it, trying to find out what it is that will make everything line up and it will pay for itself. And we’re not there yet. But it doesn’t mean we’re not going to get there, because we keep trying things. We’ve tried concerts, we have the Bear Café, which is doing really well. We have the Bear Cantina, doing really well. There’s the Tinker Street Tavern. And Nancy’s Ice Cream, all of those things are great. Pete Caigan is just opening up a recording studio in the Utopia space. He was a technician for Radio Woodstock and now he’s come back here.
“The hardest one to get right is the theater. We tried music, we tried story slams, we tried jazz clubs, bluegrass evenings and Saturday afternoons. It’s so difficult because the cost of the building is so big…it is a third of all the floor space and that means it takes a third of all the property tax, a third of the insurance, a third of all the utilities, and yet, unlike the other building, the bar or the restaurants, there’s no regularity about it, like we’re always open on weekends, or we’ve always got customers. We have to make it work.
“So now that we’ve built the park outside, which was a response to Covid, we’ve discovered that we made a really beautiful outside space for weddings and for memorials. So we are inviting people to use it for those reasons. As well as we have the Luthiers and the Film Festival, Martha’s Book Festival, these kind of annual weekends are a really good use of the space. And we’ve got weddings and memorials and corporate retreats. And then we also have concerts, last night we had Rick Wakeman, put on by an outside promoter, and that was wonderful.
“So we’re inviting other people to use it. I think what I learned, and people will say, well, I could have told you that, is that being a concert promoter takes a long time to get the contacts and be on people’s artist roster so that you get the right artists. So it’s actually more successful if you work with other people, for example Radio Woodstock, or people like that…”
Vann earned the money she brought to Woodstock “with my organic babyfood company that ran for 16 years, from 1992 to 2008. And that money that I made came from mothers of children that wanted to give their children the best start in life. And that created a company that had value and I sold it, and a lot of the money went to taxes and everything else. But I feel that the money that I got from it is the money that’s going to go to Lashers. I think it’s important that this isn’t some rich woman coming from outside the community, that’s just kind of dipping in and out. This is, for me, a project that is about giving back in a meaningful way. One of the things I feel strongly about is that Woodstock should feel proud of what they are and what they were.”
Vann has been no stranger to easily stirred controversy in Woodstock. Issues like tree cutting and asphalt parking lots have angered some. Asked if she feels she has been treated fairly in the town, she says that she believes most people “love what we’ve done. I think there are some people that don’t like change, and I understand that.
“If we’ve made mistakes along the way, I hope the town forgives us, because we’ve been doing that work with the best of intentions. We’ve had to conform to town code on things like curb cuts and blacktop and car parking to get the cars off the road; of course we’ve conformed to all the watercourse and environmental requirements and the basic building codes. We’ve tried to do our best and I hope that the town likes what we’ve done and that they trust me about what we’re about to do with Lashers. And because that’s in town, it makes it easier to make it open to the public to come along and see what we’re going to do. Of course we’ll have public meetings and the plans will be publicly available and we’ll listen to what people have got to say about it. I know how important that property is…I mean music lovers will come to Bearsville but everybody has been to Lashers, everybody I’ve ever met has been to at least one funeral at Lashers…”
And the motivation?
“Why am I doing it? Well two things really. The obvious reason is I’m a big Bob Dylan fan and Janis Joplin, and 1960s music fan. And I came to Woodstock just by chance and fell in love with the place. When I see the history fading, about Bearsville and maybe other buildings in town, I don’t want to let them fade. I think what happened in the 1960s with the counter culture and during that time, was an important part of all the thinking and the public work that was going on, people protesting and writing songs and coming together and talking about things like communal living…I don’t think that should be forgotten.
“And then what happens with the purchase of Lashers? I was driving through town about a month ago on my way to 59 Tinker, and I was thinking that there’s such an amazing story to tell about Woodstock and that little space at 59 Tinker. And I saw the ‘for sale’ sign at Lashers, and I thought, oh my goodness, I had not thought about that. All I was aware of was that it was for sale a couple of years ago and there was a controversy about it. It just hadn’t registered that it was still for sale. I looked at it, the Victorian house and then the barn…I’ve always loved the way the grass opens up and runs into the library space.
“So I just rang Peter (Cantine, the real estate agent with the listing) and said are you sure? I don’t understand why it’s still for sale, and he just said, well it is. The next day we met and I had a tour of it, and I said this would be perfect for a museum…”