According to the History Center of Tompkins County, downtown Ithaca once boasted seventeen grand theaters, including the Lyceum, the Crescent, and the Strand. The State Theatre is the last remaining cinema and vaudeville palace in Ithaca. With its 1,609 seat capacity, it is also one of the area’s most significant arts venues. The building dates back to 1915. Designed by local architect Henry N. Hinckley, it was originally an auto garage and dealership. In 1926, Cornell Theatres, Inc. purchased the building and hired celebrated theatre architect Victor Rigaumont to design and oversee the transformation of the garage and showroom into an atmospheric cinema and vaudeville palace. Rigaumont incorporated elements of the Moorish and Renaissance Revival Styles and the Collegiate Gothic symbolism of Cornell University to create a magical haven for theatre and moviegoers. Opening night, December 6, 1928, was a memorable and entertaining spectacle featuring Paul Tremaine and his Aristocrats of Modern Music. The show promised “21 Peppy, Snappy Entertainers” and admission cost 50 cents.
The State Theatre flourished as a premier entertainment venue and was a source of great pride to Tompkins County residents for many decades. Beginning with vaudeville, the theater has evolved with the times. When movies became more popular in the early 1930s, the theater thrived primarily as a cinema house. After World War II, with the advent of television and suburban movie houses, downtown cinema palaces like the State struggled. To adapt, the owners added a second movie screen in 1976, dividing the balcony from the main house. If you look up from the front of the balcony, you can still see a visible line where this dividing wall met the ceiling.
Ultimately, the theater closed in the 1980s because of financial difficulties and the demands of long-deferred maintenance. Attempts to revive the theater over the next fifteen years failed, though the community succeeded in having the theater listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1996. Finally, in 1997, the theater was condemned by the City of Ithaca because of serious roof damage, a failing heating and ventilation system, and the safety hazards caused by falling plaster and out-of-date electrical systems. The owners seriously, though reluctantly, considered demolition.
Community anxiety about the State Theatre was intense. For the State Theatre to be lost was widely considered unacceptable. But saving the State was an immense task: how could it be done?
In the Spring of 1998, Historic Ithaca responded to the community’s distress signal. With community support, the organization purchased the failing structure and assumed the role of preservationist, developer and manager, establishing the State Theatre Restoration Project. Historic Ithaca staff and volunteers galvanized public support and accepted the daunting task of reversing the building’s condemnation. This included replacement or serious repair of the main roof, the dangerously disintegrated plaster walls, the outdated electrical systems, the fire detection system, and the heating and ventilation systems.
Strong community support bolstered this first phase of the project and secured desperately needed funding from municipal, foundation and private donors; leaders from the business, arts, preservation and political communities were involved. In 1999, the American Institute of Architects recognized the State Theatre as one of the most significant architectural landmarks in New York State.
Between 1998 and December 2001, Phase I of the State Theatre Restoration Project was completed. After years of community effort the State Theatre regained its occupancy permit, and with great anticipation the theater re-opened with gala festivities on December 5, 2001. Every seat was full, as young and old came together in a joyous celebration of community.
In the spring of 2009, The State Theatre of Ithaca, Inc., a newly formed 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization, purchased the State Theatre from Historic Ithaca. This allowed Historic Ithaca to return to its core mission of promoting architectural preservation programs and services in the Ithaca community. As the new caretakers of this beautiful building, we take great pride in the architectural genius, outstanding acoustics, and exquisite ornamentation that can be found throughout the hall. On behalf of the State Theatre of Ithaca, Inc. we ask you to join us in extending our appreciation to Historic Ithaca for all their hard work and dedication throughout their twelve years of ownership. Without them, this community gem would have been demolished many years ago.
As we open our doors this fall, many patrons have noted how the theatre is in the best condition they have ever seen. The entire front entrance, including the plaster ceiling under the marquee, has been renovated, and many other improvements have been made to the lobby, including the repainting of all of the wood beams throughout. The tiny light bulbs in the ceiling of the theatre have been replaced, so once again the “stars” can come out at night. In January 2010, major upgrades were completed to the stage and fly-gallery. A $92,000 rigging project added 13 counterweight line sets to the existing system allowing greater programming options and a more professional production space. An insulated load-in door was also added to the stage to seal a major air leak, ensuring an ambient stage temperature during performances and saving significant money on energy. A new handicap accessible drinking fountain was recently installed which was generously funded by a grant from The Rotary Club of Ithaca. A popcorn machine was introduced to our concessions stand last spring, immediately doubling our food sales. And most notably, a major renovation project was completed last spring to repair and repaint a significant portion of the damaged plaster throughout the interior of the theatre. Future projects include a complete renovation of both upstairs restrooms, a redesign of our bar and concessions area and replacing our inoperative 1936 air conditioning system to allow us to extend our season a full 12 months. If you would like to get involved with any of these projects, please let us know. We always welcome your thoughts and will continue to rely upon your support to ensure that the theatre provides this community with the finest performances, venue, and patron experience possible.
Thank you for your patronage. We look forward to seeing you as often as possible this season and for many years to come!