Hudson Hall: New Name, New Life for the Opera House
By Jamie Larson
(Editor’s note: Shortly after publication of this story, the Hudson Opera House announced it is revising its name to “Hudson Hall.” Explanation is available on the website.)
The Hudson Opera House is now the Henry Hudson Hall Center for the Arts and the name is the least of the changes. After 25 years of stewardship and planning, $8.5 million in capital project funding, and one crazy year of construction and restoration, this regional institution is about to embark on one of the most exciting periods of its 162-year history.
During a special preview performance Saturday at the HHH (or maybe the Henry, or the Hall… we’ll figure it out later), the board of directors and staff welcomed stakeholders and capital campaign donors upstairs to the (almost) fully completed theater. The grand space, constructed as a city hall in 1855, has been restored, refurbished and repainted to honor both its history and its future as a modernized arts and events space. The evening gathering was capped by the performance of an original piece by drummer Bobby Previte, a work that he created in residency at the hall over the past two weeks. It was a casual early peak at the space that will be officially christened on April 22 at the much-anticipated Proprietors Ball. Though the lion’s share of the work is well behind them, there were quaint finishing details in the hall still yet to be completed. The most noticeable and elegant of these was the top left corner section of proscenium, still red, patiently waiting for its gilding.
There’s unmistakable anxious excitement in the voice of HHH Director Gary Schiro when he talks about the massive project and what it means for the future of the non-profit.
“It’s very much a new beginning,” Schiro says. “We kept all our downstairs programs running through the project, which was an enormous challenge. It was a complex project on a tight footprint. We can’t wait to let everyone in to see what we’ve done.”
There was certainly a handsome bohemian charm to the unfinished state of the hall before the renovation, but the level of sophistication imbued in the space has transformed the venue into a bird of a different color. That color is a soft selection of grays that make the space feel bigger than when it was a striking, flaking red. The crumbling moldings have been restored and the floor shines, giving any local venue a run for its money.
“There were a few really satisfying things that happened during construction,” Schiro recounts. “The oculus in the center of the ceiling had been all chopped up, and we’d resigned ourselves to the thought we would have to replace it with something. Then, a couple of weeks into the project, the contractors found the original missing piece up in the attic. We are so lucky it survived the ravages of time.”
The restored beauty of the hall itself is inescapable, but the well-spent donations and grants also went towards technical infrastructure like modernized lighting and sound equipment. The hall, originally opened as Hudson’s city hall, has been many things over the centuries. One thing it had never been until now is handicap accessible. An elevator has been built in the back of the building. Construction was no small feat, as it had to be built on the corner of two small alleys. On Saturday, Schiro and Board President Susan Hendrickson gave a vociferous thank you to their neighbors, who endured a year of maneuvering around the tricky construction zone. Shiro says he still gets a rush every time he rides the completed elevator.
Now that they’re in the home stretch, Schiro says, the renovation is not just about looking the part but giving the HHH the ability to expand performance capacity and provide more resources to community programming. Asked an example of what he’s looking forward to, his first thought was how the kids’ hip hop dance class that meets downstairs will now have the satisfaction of session-end performances on a real stage.
“As far as programming, we are going to up our game,” Schiro says. “We have the capacity now to showcase a lot of work and develop new work with artists. Providing residency support is a new way to use the space.”
All this progress is well and good but the only thing anyone seems to be talking about around town these days is… the name. Ever since the announcement of the “rebranding” last week, a not insignificant number of locals have voiced disapproval. Perhaps the most convincing sentiment is that there are already enough institutions named after white male colonialists out there. Others see the change as an unnecessary shedding of existing historic character, while others think Henry Hudson Hall is clumsy sounding and difficult to say (or think it’s odd for the organization to share an acronym with a famous professional wrestler). Social media communities have also amplified this dissatisfaction. It has become an unfortunate distraction.
“We knew going into this process that not everyone was going to be happy,” Schiro says of the rebranding venture. “But we did it with the best intentions and I think people will see that. It’s unfortunate we are talking about the name and not what a great opportunity this is.”
HHH Board President Susan Hendrickson and Director Gary Schiro address the crowd Saturday.
In many ways the hubbub is a reflection of how deeply the community holds the Opera House in their hearts to begin with, but it would be unfortunate if a disagreement detracted from the monumental concrete achievements soon to be unveiled for all to see (a Community Day is planned for May 21). The Opera House earned its virtues through hard work, excellent programming and dedication to the Hudson community — and none of that has changed with the name. So, call Henry Hudson Hall whatever you like. It won’t change the fact that the place is dazzling.