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Hudson Opera House looks up


Arts center, a local economic force, eyes second floor rehab

HUDSON–What Hudson cultural organization attracted 48,000 participants to its many programs last year? The answer is the Hudson Opera House, and its attendance numbers are growing, even in an economic downturn.

They include the 15,000 who showed up on a stormy night for December’s Winter Walk, which has become an eagerly anticipated annual event, the supporters who come to the spring and fall fundraisers, and throngs more who attend one or more of the many and varied performances and educational programs, most of which are free or subsidized, that take place weekly both in and out of the building.

Naysayers abounded in the early 1990s when doing anything with the languishing architectural ruin seemed impossible. But a small group of citizens took it upon themselves to rescue the formerly elegant 1855 Greek revival theater and community center that is so much a part of Hudson’s heritage.

Today its first floor is almost restored with a performance hall, an art gallery, a classroom/workshop, handicap-accessible restrooms, new lighting, original paint colors in the office, and its first new roof since 1939. New encaustic ceramic tiles grace the entryway.

Things got rolling in 1992 when the Hudson Opera House, Inc., a nonprofit organization, formed and bought the building for $35,000. It had been owned and neglected by a private developer since 1962 when the Hudson City Hall which had been located there, moved further up Warren Street. With a basement full of water, a leaking roof, decayed cornices and peeling paint, the Opera House was in desperate shape.

Tom Froese, president of the HOH board, owns the building across the street which once housed his restaurant, Brandow’s. He remembers that when he bought the burned out shell of a building in 1998, there was little commerce going on in the immediate area. “One of the things that gave me the impetus to buy was proximity to the Opera House. I got involved. No one wanted to come below 4th Street. Now it’s a major center of activity.”

At first the Opera House was not fit to house an office, and HOH opened in a nearby storefront. Fundraising began immediately but slowly. Over the years private donations and grants, including $225,000 from the state Office of Parks Recreation & Historic Preservation, $250,000 from the Empire State Development Corporation, and $43,000 from the New York Special Projects Fund helped bring the building to its current state of restoration.

Recently the organization raised $125,000 with the help of former Congresswoman, now Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D), and $50,000 from the New York State Council on the Arts for the enclosed fire stairs now being built on the west side of the structure, a necessary step toward opening the upstairs theatre space on a regular basis.

One of the most important steps for the HOH organization was the hiring of Gary Schiro as its first full-time director in 1998. “It’s hard for an organization to not have paid staff. You don’t get much done,” said board Vice President Sarah Lipsky. She credits fellow board member Ellen Thurston, who used her connections with to circulate the job description that eventually brought Mr. Schiro to the Opera House.

He has proved to be an inspired choice, able to manage daily building operations, programming, fundraising, grant applications and building projects. “Gary’s remarkable,” said Mr. Froese. “A lot goes on there. It takes constant attention and funding.”

Supporters say that along with the restoration of the building has come a growth in the sense of community associated with the Opera House and its programs. “It helped transform the 300 block of Warren Street and beyond, inspiring many restoration projects in the area,” said David Colby, chairman of the Columbia County Chamber of Commerce.

Mr. Colby said the Opera House is responsible for creating 52 local jobs and most of the $2 million the nonprofit arts organization invested in restoration was spent locally. “All these things add up to a major impact on the local economy,” he said.

“Foot traffic is on the increase. Hudson has become a real destination. The economic benefits will only get stronger once the larger space is finished,” Mr. Schiro said last week in an interview at his office. Completing the renovation and restoration “will triple our capacity,” he said.

The goal the Opera House has set for itself is to finish the upstairs in about two years. Mr. Schiro already has the cost estimates, architectural plans and contracts. Realizing those plans, which include an elevator, are expected to cost up to $3 million.

Showing a reporter the details of the Greek revival architecture, Mr. Schiro commented on its symmetry, balance and scale. “It’s a harmonious, celebratory temple of culture and the arts,” he said. “It’s meant to be the center of the community, both high brow and low brow.”

Since it first opened a century and a half ago, the Opera House has seen poultry shows, opera, cotillions and graduations all in the same upstairs theater space. Frederic Church and Sanford Gifford showed their paintings here. Susan B. Anthony, Clarence Darrow and Bret Hart spoke.

Today the tradition continues. “We’re able to provide a home for artists here in the community and bring people from around the world that people here wouldn’t have access to at reasonable prices or for free,” Mr. Schiro said.

The remarkable work accomplished thus far would not have happened without the support of individuals. “Government, state and corporate money is dwindling these days. We look to the community to help us as much as possible. We need to find new friends to join us, celebrate the cause, and look forward to the future,” he said.

The organization’s fall fundraiser, their biggest annual fundraising event, the Harvest Ball, HOH’s 17th annual gala, takes place September 25 at the Cannonball Factory, 359 Columbia Street. Tickets are $175 for cocktails, dinner, and dancing are on sale now.

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