Who Will Fill These Seats?

Saturday, January 10, 2015
The Briggs Opera House played a key role in the redevelopment of White River Junction when it lured Northern Stage in 1997.

So when Northern Stage moves into its new theater this summer, the opera house’s owner would like to see the space continue to play a role in the former railroad village’s growth.

“It could be some commercial use like cold storage, but that would be unfortunate. I’d really like to see it be something that would benefit the community,” said David Briggs, whose family owns the Gates-Briggs Building that contains the opera house.

The availability of the opera house space and an adjoining street-level retail area , a total of about 8,000 square feet, could be an opportunity for the White River Junction arts community to do something creative or a location for retail businesses or additional office space, a cafe or apartments, said Briggs, who is hosting a forum on Jan. 21 to give community members an opportunity to make suggestions for the development of the space.

For 30 years, the opera house has served as a lively venue in the Upper Valley’s growing performing arts community. It has hosted organizations as varied as the Yankee Brass Band Festival and the Cabin Fever Music Series during the 1980s and early ’90s and became the home of River City Arts and the White River Theater Festival, the forerunners and genesis of Northern Stage .

Briggs envisions a small theater showing indie movies and a brew pub on the upper floors, ideas for uses that others in the arts community also see as feasible.

“We really need a performance and entertainment space of that size. We have Tupelo (now the Freight House Music Hall) and the tiny space in the Main Street Museum, but we really need something bigger,” said David Fairbanks Ford, founder and director of the Main Street Museum.

“We have lots of people who want to perform here, and we don’t have the space. Bread and Puppet is always looking for a place here, and we don’t have it,” Ford said.

During its history, the original 1890s Gates Opera House hosted theatrical performances, community events and dances and was the home of the Hartford High School championship basketball teams, Briggs said.

In 1938, the Gates Building became a J.J. Newberry’s store, and the opera house balcony seating was closed in with a lower ceiling. “There’s a cavernous space up there above the ceiling where the balcony was,” Briggs said.

After Newberry’s stopped using the opera house space around 1979 , the arts community rallied and opened the opera house again, hosting musical and theatrical performances, including such artists as Arlo Guthrie.

Now, White River Junction is in the middle of a building boom, with construction of about $28 million in private and public funding that is designed to attract more residents, office and retail workers, retail and restaurant customers and arts patrons to the downtown area. In addition to Northern Stage’s new performance space, another multi-purpose building is planned for North Main Street and construction is underway on the conversion of the American Legion Hall into shops and apartments and on new state office buildings near the Town Hall, which is currently being renovated.

“There’s a real sense of energy in White River Junction, and things are beginning to reach critical mass in the downtown. We need a little movie house and a library. To have those would be wonderful,” said James Sturm, director of the Center for Cartoon Studies, which is located in three downtown buildings .

White River Junction has undergone sustained growth during the last decade, said Robert Craig Baum, the former academic dean of Lebanon College and now a vice president for marketing and sales with the Nikoshi/Western General Group, an international investing group. Baum envisions a multipurpose use for the opera house.

“My vision brings together three generations in a way that supports and expands the work of (ongoing projects) ... The new theatre will need workshop, experimental, and classical theater programming outlets while it pursues a top-notch main stage. As Main Street Museum continues to bring new exhibits and focus on in-house curation, the Briggs space could very easily house a music (collaborative) project ..., an annual mainstay like the White River Indie Festival and family programming similar to Perry Farre ll’s Kidzapalooza (a kid’s stage with family friendly performances),” Baum said.

To have a venue designed for showing films would be a wonderful addition to the White River Indie Film Festival, a spring event that has shown movies in such locations as the Freight House, the Hotel Coolidge and the Tip Top building, spots around the downtown that are normally reserved for other purposes, said Festival Director Christine Porcaro.

“For us to have the ability to show films in a place set up like that would be wonderful. It also would be great to be able to show films throughout the year,” Porcaro said.

Assuming that construction of the new facility stays on track, Northern Stage will begin to move out of the Briggs Opera House after the season closes in May, said Amanda Rafuse, the theater company’s director of development.

Northern Stage also is working with the Briggs family and will leave such amenities as lighting and the sound system if they are needed for a new tenant’s use, Rafuse said.

“We’d be very happy to see another organization in there who would put on theater productions. We would complement each other,” she said.

There also is a need for a convenient place to hold large meetings and seminars, said Joan Goldstein, the executive director of the Green Mountain Economic Development Corporation, which has offices in Railroad Row.

“The opera house would be wonderful for that and to have as a theater as well, if it’s done right.” If a nonprofit renovated the space and made it code and handicapped compliant, there would be funding available through state arts sources, Goldstein said.

Funding is a function of will and sustained attention to projects that benefit the entire community, Baum said.

“White River Junction is a rally point for all community leaders and private and public underwriters. Any form of ‘go it alone’ in this economy with this particular generation of leader will fail. ... We need a new anchor, perhaps an investment group founded by the industrial, cultural and political leaders in White River Junction,” Baum said.

Briggs hopes that whoever develops the opera house also will include the old Newberry’s store area on the street level, a space that most recently has been used for weekend bingo games, as part of the overall project.

The area could be home to smaller shops, galleries and a cafe sharing a common area with an open staircase leading up to the opera house. It also might include some offices, Briggs said.

Briggs is looking forward to hearing ideas and coming up with a plan for the space during the forum on Wednesday, Jan. 21, at 7 p.m. in the Briggs Opera House, he said.

“I’m hoping something will materialize and that we can or somebody else can bring it to maturity.”

Warren Johnston can be reached at wjohnston@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.

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