Abandoned theater envisioned as new cultural center
FORT PLAIN Micki Lieber’s vision for the old Diefendorf Hall on Fort Plain’s Main Street is a long way from being realized.
She’s the president of Friends of Fort Plain, the group charged with turning the long-abandoned historic theater into a community hub.
“We want it to be a cultural community center,” she said. “A place where locals can gather and tourists can stop to learn the history of our village.”
That restoration project will take many thousands of dollars, but she said a $3,000 check recently cut by the New York State Preservation League is a pretty good start.
“We really needed it,” she said.
Diefendorf Hall landed the technical assistance grant in the first of two yearly funding rounds for the league.
There are a few things wrong with the building at this point. One of the roof trusses is unstable and there’s no heat. During the Otsquago Creek flooding, water filled the basement all the way to the floor joists and ruined the ancient boiler system.
“We had to have it removed,” she said, “And we still have some mud down there.”
The money, though, isn’t meant to make those repairs. The $3,000, along with $500 in matching funds from the Friends, will cover only a list of necessary repairs.
Early on in the process, an engineer did what Lieber called a feasibility study. Basically, he made sure the walls weren’t going to fall in on people.
Erin Tobin, a spokeswoman for the league, said in a statement that Syracuse engineering firm Klepper Hahn & Hyatt will go through the three-story brick building with a fine-tooth comb and provide a more complete long-term structural analysis.
List of building maladies in hand, the Friends can go after further grants for repairs and design. It’s just one stop on the long road to a cultural hub, but league grants are very competitive, according to Tobin’s statement and Lieber was pleased to get one.
“We’ve been making progress on this building for four years,” she said. “I think the Preservation League values our methodical effort.”
The building also has some historical significance. Back in 1867, Diefendorf Hall served as a back-up facility for the nearby Clinton Liberal Institute and hosted speeches by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. It’s a fitting past for a future cultural center.
Another local historic structure also received a technical assistance grant in the most recent league funding round: The West Hill School, whose limestone hulk towers over the village of Canajoharie, will get $500 for a similar structural assessment. “It’s a solid building,” said Tolga Morawski. “It’s not going anywhere, but in the world of historic restoration, my word doesn’t go very far.”
Morawski serves as treasurer of the Mohawk Valley Collective, the nonprofit working to bring the old school back to its former glory. They officially took possession of the 121-year-old structure earlier this month, more than a year after village officials saved it from demolition.
The $500 grant, along with $500 in matching funds, looks very small in comparison with pressing repairs. Morawski said the building needs a new roof, which will cost roughly $100,000. Then there’s all the interior work that must be done.
“I like to look at this as just a series of smaller jobs that need to get done,” he said.
Most larger grants require a structural assessment, so that’s just the next task in that series of jobs.
The collective is also working to improve Fort Plain’s century-old Unity Hall. That structure received a league grant for structural analysis last year, which Morawski said has helped immensely in applying for additional grants.