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Cape May Stage presents Project Encore: Rebuilding the theater

Groucho Marx once said – “Politics doesn’t make strange bedfellows – marriage does.” Well, at first glance, Cape May Stage’s ambitious renovation project makes the marriage of architectural restoration and the needs of a working theater look exactly like a couple of a really strange bedfellows.

Phase One of Project Encore began on the circa 1853 building, located at the corner of Bank and Lafayette streets, in May of last year and ended in October. It isn’t the kind of work anyone would really notice, as Tom Carroll, Historical Restoration Chairman of the committee pointed out recently while at the top – the very top – of the belvedere or cupola on a cold and icy morning. Underneath the cupola are sturdy steel reinforcements and new wood beams supporting a new roof and providing a safe place from which to hang the new stage lighting.

Looking down from on high, one can see the stage and seating area in which so many theatrical productions have taken place over the years. Preliminary plans for Phase Two of the restoration have already begun and are expected to be completed by May 1. These changes will affect the stage area, back and front – actors and actresses will have their own dressing room. The players will, at long last, have their very own bathroom and will no longer have to run out the side door and around to the front. Riser-style seating will be installed – audience members will no longer have to do the bob and weave to see over someone’s head. State of the art lighting and sound will be installed. The front entrance and foyer, the windows and doors all will be restored, or in the case of the badly damaged windows, replaced, and brought back to their former elegance.

 The $1.2 million project is expected to be completed by May of next year and plans are already underway for a gala season opening.

 Just how did this strange marriage of theater and historical restoration come about? In order to answer that question, we need to go back in time.

 Jim Moffatt, Project Encore chairman, was able to give us a little insight with the assistance of a 9-minute video featuring actor Robert Prosky, committee deputy chair/ videographer John Bailey and artistic director Michael Carleton.

 Early Presbyterians visiting the island in the 1800s did not have a church. They instead traveled to Cold Spring Presbyterian Church on Seashore Rd, some three miles away. In 1844 one of the ministers decided to build a summer church or Visitor’s Church at the north end of Washington Street. As the town became more established, the newly formed Cape May congregation asked if they could buy the church. The Cold Spring elders said no. The Cape May congregation said o.k. and went ahead and purchased a property on Lafayette Street. For a sum of $7,000, Cape Island Presbyterian Church was built in an “exotic, revivalist” style which included an onion-shaped cupola. The first service occurred on July 17th, 1853.

 Civil War hero Col. Henry Sawyer worshipped in this church for over 40 years as well as serving as a trustee of Cape Island Presbyterian Church. During the war (Civil War that is) Sawyer, who built the Chalfonte Hotel in 1876, was taken prisoner and about to be hung. While in captivity, Col. Sawyer, according to Bailey, wrote his wife that he wished he could look through the church doors and see his family at worship. A last minute prisoner exchange involving Robert E. Lee’s son, arranged by President Lincoln, made that wish come true. In 1871, eight years later, Sawyer escorted his daughter Louisa down the aisle of Cape Island Presbyterian Church when Louisa married Dr. Samuel F. Ware.

 In 1898, the congregation outgrew the small church and built another, much larger one at the corner of Hughes and Decatur streets. The next year, the Episcopalians took over the church and named it the Church of the Advent. In 1903 Miss. Annie Knight, daughter of Edward Knight, the then owner of Congress Hall and the inventor of the Pullman sleeping car, purchased the building from the Presbyterians and gave it to the Episcopalians, who used it from the fall of each year to the summer. Once the Episcopalians abandoned the building to build another church at the corner of Franklin and Washington streets– it stayed vacant for years and fell into disrepair. In 1952, the parish sold the church to the City for $2,000. The city had plans to demolish the church as well as the old fire hall next to it. In 1956, with demolition of the historic church looming, a group of concerned cottagers (summer residents), led by Thomas Harris, Jr. made a deal with the city to lease the building to them for ten years at $1 a year. In exchange, they promised to renovate the church. The consortium managed to raise about $24,000, ($6,500 of which was contributed by Mr. Harris) which was used to convert the building to a community center. The fire hall next door did not fare so well and is now a parking lot for the theater.

 For nearly 40 years the Community Center of Cape May functioned as both a Welcome Center for tourists in the summer and meeting place for many of the women’s groups and civic groups in the evenings and during the off season. In 1993 Cape May Stage founder and artistic director Michael Laird approached the city for permission to move his theater company over to the Welcome Center for evening performances – Welcome Center by day and theater by night. He negotiated three 3-year leases with the city for $1,000 a year until 1999 when the Welcome Center relocated to its present home at the train station off Lafayette Street. With the Welcome Center’s departure, Cape May Stage finally had a home of its own. In January 2001, Laird succumbed to cancer and a new artistic director was appointed.

 So, here’s how two unlikely interests became bedfellows – Under the leadership of current artistic director Michael Carleton, Cape May Stage recently signed an agreement with the city similar to the one signed nearly 50 years ago.  The city agreed to lease the former church to Cape May Stage for 50 years in exchange for a nominal price. For its part, Cape May Stage agreed to renovate the old church, bring it back to it historical integrity and open it up to the public for community use when the theater is dark.

 The Project Encore committee began their work in earnest two years ago. Their first task was to find a solid base of contributors. They also needed to search for grant monies. Lastly, they needed to find an historical architect up to the task of marrying the old with the new.

 As to the first concern, Moffatt found local residents to be very generous in their support to the tune of $550,000, including a donation from Scott Bennung. Bennung of Preservation Products donated the coating used to help restore the “rusty, worn but original” roof. Bennung’s father Carl, a Cape May cottager and a chemical engineer, invented the coating when trying to deal with his own roof problems.

 In terms of outside money, Project Encore is the recipient of a $100,000 Casino Reinvestment Development Authority (CRDA) grant as well as a $50,000 Project Management Costs award from the New Jersey Historic Trust. Tom Carroll said the group has also applied for a grant from the NJ Historic Trust to cover 50 per cent of the restoration costs, which they are optimistic about receiving.

 As to an architect – the board of trustees hired Michael Calafati of Preservation NJ. He has received assistance from Bennung, Cape May resident Dave Clemens, and Andrzej Odrzywolski with Action Painting and Restoration among others.

 So how ‘bout this marriage? Is it working? Tom Carroll, former owner of the Mainstay Inn, said historical preservation is always about “straddling history with function.”  When the restoration is complete, the building will be 100% reversible. Within one week, any changes made to accommodate the theater can be removed and the building can go back to its original state. “Preservation is always a compromise. Ours is very respectful of the building.”

Well, those bedfellows aren’t really so strange after all, are they?

All photographs provided by Project Encore.