‘It’s Pretty Sobering’: Future of Playhouse Uncertain


New Canaan would need to spend some $2.1 million—with an estimated $450,000 beyond that, for abatement—in order to bring the Playhouse Theatre on Elm Street to safe, structurally sound and ADA-compliant condition, public works officials said Tuesday.

New Canaan Playhouse on the morning of Jan. 26, 2015, as the blizzard approaches. Credit: Michael Dinan

New Canaan Playhouse on the morning of Jan. 26, 2015. Credit: Michael Dinan

The 1923 building needs parts of its roof and brick exterior replaced ($550,00), an elevator and ADA-compliant wheelchair access ($1,120,000), new gutters and drainage system ($200,000) and, perhaps most of all, a new layout for its sprinkler system—currently perched above a layer of insulation in the ceiling, according to Michael Pastore, director of the New Canaan Department of Public Works.

“If the sprinklers come on, it’s going to soak that insulation, get heavy and probably bring down the ceiling,” Pastore said while presenting DPW’s budget request (see page 39 here) to the Board of Finance at a meeting held in the Sturgess Room of the New Canaan Nature Center. “That’s the situation we have.”

The figures above do not include contaminant abatement for any capital work needed—Pastore said a consultant hired to assess the structure last year put the figure at $450,000, strictly based on the Town Hall renovation.

“It could be more, it could be less,” he said.

Purchased by the town in 2007 for $2,205,000, the theatre fetches $110,00 per year in rent from tenants that include Bow Tie Cinemas (about halfway through a 15-year lease), New Canaan Cares, New Canaan Chamber of Commerce and Earth Garden on the street level, officials said.

The rent for Bow Tie was pegged at a low amount, First Selectman Rob Mallozzi said, in order to entice the movie company to operate it.

“It’s pretty sobering,” said Mallozzi, who also serves as chairman of the finance board.

“This building is going to cost us money in the future … It’s something we have to talk about because it’s the last thing we want to do to drain our coffers for something if it’s not kicking us much back,” Mallozzi said.
Rehabbing the theatre could be a “slightly more” attractive project to a private group, he said, since ADA requirements would change somewhat.

The building last was appraised at $1,151,400 and the .24 acres it sits on at $720,000, tax records show.

Finance board member and former First Selectman Judy Neville recalled that at the time the town bought the Playhouse, “there was a strong feeling we had with the movie theater that we retain the movie theater—that it would add a central core, so to speak, as a destination.”

“What nobody ever felt that strongly about was that we had to own it,” Neville said.

Though the matter of New Canaan’s acquiring the Playhouse never went to referendum, Neville said, the town did see “an outpouring of people speak at the Board of Finance and Town Council” in favor of purchasing and preserving it as a movie theater.

Mallozzi said he would gather town officials to discuss ways the town might handle the Playhouse, including members of the Board of Finance and Town Council, such as the council’s chairman, Bill Walbert, who was in attendance.

Buzz Kanter, an alternate on the finance board, said that even putting the estimated $2 million to $3 million into the Playhouse wasn’t a long-term solution: “It’s just this stage and then there will be another stage and another stage.”

“It seems to me there are two measures of this,” Kanter said. “One is a financial measure. The other one—for lack of a better word—is a ‘community measure.’ I don’t know enough about how our town politics and structure works to determine what to do, but it certainly seems it is taking an impact on the financial side, one that needs to be addressed.”

One thought on “‘It’s Pretty Sobering’: Future of Playhouse Uncertain

  1. The New Canaan Playhouse is a New Canaan Landmark. Designed by New York city architect Calvin Kiessling, in 1922. He was born in Boston and practiced there a few years, designing Carnegie Libraries in Davenport Iowa (1904, demolished in 1966 due to unstable conditions underneath the foundation), and in Colorado Springs (1905, renovated in 2002). The latter was made of red brick with limestone trim in the grand Beaux-Arts style. He soon moved to New York City and formed Davis, McGrath and Kiessling, designing houses and public buildings.

    In 1921 he moved to New Canaan, soon remodeling farmhouses; one a 1752 house at 968 Weed Street and the other, the Bouton-Keeler- Kiessling House at an unknown address on “the East Avenue hill” possibly now demolished.

    In 1922 a group of New Canaan residents, lead by Kiessling, proposed a plan to rebuild part of the business section with a view “to making the town more beautiful and to provide a village green.” They intended to erect a Playhouse and motion picture theater on what was then called Railroad Avenue. “This attractive Colonial structure will form the Railroad Avenue end of the proposed village improvement plan as proposed by Mr. Kiessling, with the First National Bank [big brick building next to Town Hall] at the Main Street end. ” (This quote is from the Building Conservation Architects, “Early Twentieth Century Architecture in New Canaan” New Canaan Mid-Century Modern Houses, CT Commission on Culture and Tourism, 2009)

    The Playhouse was built the following year, using Kiessling’s Colonial Revival style designs of red brick, white trim and a cupola. It was featured in the November 1924 issue of The Architect. His obituary claimed “He is credited with starting the colonial design of New Canaan’s business district”. John Brotherhood formed the Colonial Company, a real estate development company, by 1926, to build retail and office commercial structures on Railroad Ave, renamed Elm street ten years later. The 1930 Colonial Revival style Post Office was designed by Alfred Mausolff to complement the Playhouse across the street.

    By 1929 Kiessling had renovated at least the two historic houses mentioned above, adding Mt. Vernon-like shallow two-story porticos by extending the roof line, and incorporating outbuildings as additions. According to the Advertiser’s obituary he received great acclaim with pictures of the Weed Street residence published in ”The Architect” in 1924, in “House and Garden” in1927, and in the thirteenth edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica as “an example of colonial architecture at its best.”

    He then turned his attentions to designing his own house, at the corner of Wahackme Road and Wahackme Lane. He chose a vernacular English cottage style, of stone and slate, part of the Romantic movement in 1930’s architectural styles for small houses, practiced in New Canaan by Frank J. Forster, Walter Bradnee Kirby and Alfred Mausolff.

    By 1932 Kiessling listed himself a Landscape Architect responsible for a terrace garden photographed from a covered porch and published opposite p. 367 in Pauline Murray’s “Planning and Planting the Home Garden” 1932.

    In 2010, the New Canaan Preservation Alliance commissioned the New Canaan Historic Architectural Resources Survey of the Eastern half of the retail area, funded by the State Historic Preservation Office. It was conducted by architectural historian David Taylor: he concluded he “Village” on Main Street, as built by the Village Improvement Company. (As we know, the plan to create a Village Green between the Playhouse and the bank next to Town Hall, was never carried out.
    The State Historic Preservation Office has subsequently proposed a larger “Downtown Historic District, including major buildings, such as St Aloysius Church and the Stick Style house beside it, the Library, and parts of Forest Street. Listing on the National Register allows private owners, as well as municipalities, to apply for Federal Tax credits for approved improvements to these listed historic properties; the municipality would then sell those tax credits to a waiting market of investors.

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