Written by Erica Stewart
When looking for irrefutable evidence that the Save America’s Treasures program is much too valuable a job-generating and community-building program to lose, look no further than Pittsfield, Massachusetts. You would be hard-pressed to find anyone familiar with this post-industrial city who does not credit the 2006 rehabilitation of the historic Colonial Theatre as the catalyst that launched Pittsfield’s rebirth. And it is no exaggeration to credit the SAT program—including a visit by First Lady Hillary Clinton—with being the spark plug that jumpstarted the campaign to save the theatre and the city.
When General Electric moved out, (leaving a toxic legacy behind) urban decay, drug trafficking, blight and abandonment moved in. Pittsfield in the 1980s was a city whose residents had literally given up hope of recovery. But amid the ruin, and surviving relatively intact, was the 1903 Colonial Theatre, designed by noted theater architect J.B. McElfatrick. After a storied run as a Vaudeville theatre—its acoustics rivaling the best showplaces in the world—and a less-successful stint as a movie house, the Theatre came up for auction in 1952.
Fortunately, the theatre sold to George Miller, actually the lowest bidder, who set up an art supply store at that location. For fifty years customers of Miller’s Art Supply Store browsed paint selections amid ornate columns that sprung out of the floor and vanished into a drop ceiling. But it was that drop ceiling and those temporary wall partitions that effectively protected the theatre interior and ultimately made it possible to return the theater to its Gilded Age grandeur.
In 1998, First Lady Hillary Clinton’s Save America’s Treasures Tour rumbled into Pittsfield on a scorching July day. Despite the oppressive heat and a schedule delay caused by bus trouble in New York, much of Pittsfield turned out to greet the entourage, waving flags and cheering wildly. The scene was electrifying, and the visit helped catapult forward the grassroots effort to restore the theatre, led by the Friends of the Colonial Theatre. A $400,000 SAT grant followed in 2000, providing a huge boost in credibility and financial leverage to the campaign, and in 2001 the Colonial Theatre Association purchased the theatre with plans for a complete makeover.
Five years and $21.5 million later (including $7 million in federal historic and New Markets Tax Credits and settlement money from GE), the reborn Colonial Theatre held its Grand Opening in August 2006. It is truly a show-stopper, earning worldwide renown for both the quality of the work and for the dramatic impact the theatre’s reopening has had on the revitalization of the entire community.
Let me count the ways. The independent research firm Center for Creative Community Development (C3D), conservatively estimates that the theatre sustains a direct economic impact of $4 million and 92 full-time jobs annually in the Berkshires region. In addition to being an economic development engine, it has transformed Pittsfield into an arts and entertainment destination for the entire region and is once again the symbolic center for the community.
The accolades are many. Preservation Massachusetts awarded the Colonial Theatre its prestigious Paul E. Tsongas Award in recognition of this preservation and community revitalization achievement. The Society of American Travel Writers gave the Colonial its Phoenix Award, and it is annually recognized by media and residents as “Best Live Theatre”, “Best Venue”, and “Best Restoration” in both the Berkshires and the Albany Capital Region. American music icon James Taylor is among the theatre’s biggest fans, choosing to stage his live CD/DVD recording at the Colonial.
The role of Save America's Treasures to the project’s success and the project’s impact on Pittsfield cannot be overstated. The Honorable James Ruberto, Mayor of Pittsfield, who has overseen much of the city’s revitalization throughout the past eight years, credits the program with much of the credit for our community’s ability to overcome the inertia that kept it locked into a self-destructive cycle. “The opening of the Colonial Theatre really started the cultural renaissance here in Pittsfield. Dozens of new businesses, restaurants, art venues, and even other theaters have been created downtown directly and indirectly because of the investment that Save America’s Treasures and the community put forward to bring back this almost forgotten gem.”
Save America's Treasures, Preserve America, and the other programs cut or underfunded by the proposed federal budget do more than preserve our country's rich heritage – they put Americans to work. Learn more about the National Trust's campaign to restore this critical funding.
Erica Stewart is the outreach coordinator for the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s community revitalization department.