Monomoy Theatre Property To Be Sold; Safety Violations Prompt University To Drop Lease

By: Kat Szmit

Topics: Development , Local Theater , Tourism , Historic , Chatham , Real estate , Arts , Historic preservation

The Monomoy Theatre. FILE PHOTO 

CHATHAM – For more than six decades, local theater enthusiasts have flocked to the Monomoy Theatre to see shows evoking a sense of Broadway in their backyard. Now, the future of the landmark is in jeopardy after recent health and safety violations prompted the University of Hartford to terminate its lease, which in turn has motivated the property owners to put the property up for sale in the coming weeks.

The nonprofit Monomoy Theatre, Inc. has had some discussions with the property owners, the Steindler Family Trust, about buying the property and continuing to operate it as a theater, but unless an agreement can be reached in a month or so, it's likely the theater will remain dark this summer.

The Monomoy Theatre has been likened to a summer theater bootcamp. Each June, three dozen theater students from the Hartt School and other universities arrive and spend the next 10 weeks putting on eight shows, ranging from ambitious musicals to intimate dramas. The students live in dormitory-style accommodations in buildings on the property.

But those buildings are in need of extensive upgrading. The costs of repairs needed to satisfy the health, safety and fire violations found identified during inspections last year is uncertain, but was expected to be enough that the University of Hartford, a small, private college in Hartford, Conn., was not prepared to tackle the costs.

“The University of Hartford is not in a position at all to invest its own resources financially in something like this,” said Alan Rust, artistic director of the Monomoy Theatre and director of the theater program at the Hartt School. University officials could not be reached for comment.

Slater Anderson, a senior advisor at LandVest, the company overseeing the trust, said that the repairs to the property were significant enough to warrant its sale, adding it should go on the market in the next three weeks.

“They were substantial enough that the trustees came to the conclusion that it wasn't in their fiduciary interest to invest heavily in repairs required by the town of Chatham,” Anderson said. “And the tenants, University of Hartford, who were responsible for the property, failed to make repairs as well.” He would not say what the sale price of the property would be.

Rust noted that both Ohio University and the University of Hartford conducted various repairs through the years, including the installation of new theater seats, air conditioning, plumbing, and having the main house shingled and repainted.

Rust explained that the university mostly provided administrative support. Most of the theater's budget comes from box office receipts and financial support from the Friends of Monomoy Theatre, which sent a letter in October asking supporters to withhold donations until the future of the theater was clear. Rust said the theater received private donations from people in Chatham, as well as two significant bequests upon the deaths of two people very fond of the theater.

“That funding has dried up now,” Rust said.

The nonprofit Monomoy Theatre, Inc. established in 2015, is interested in purchasing the property with the intention of continuing to run it as always, but a summer 2019 season is likely unrealistic at this point.

“What would have to happen is that this organization would have to go through the process of buying it, then create a plan for fixing it up,” said Rust.

However, securing funds for a future re-opening is possible. If a purchase agreement can be reached for the property, the nonprofit group is ready to raise funds and apply for grants, said board of directors member Gay Murdoch. Because the property falls under both the arts and historic preservation, there are numerous local, state and federal grants that it could qualify for.

The property at 776 Main St. is comprised of six buildings – a main house, the theater, a workshop, the Bassett House, and several smaller outbuildings, as well as a small cottage at 70 Depot Rd. The Main Street property, which sits on 3.6 acres of land, is valued at $1,550,800 according to the town's assessing department, and the Depot Road lot of 16,534 feet and cottage are valued at $429,300.

Of the six buildings on the Main St. property, most of the health and safety issues are in the main house – a “double” Greek Revival building, portions of which may date back to the 1800s – and the Bassett house at the rear of the property, both of which serve as dormitories for theater students.

An initial inspection by the building and health departments in June found numerous violations of the Massachusetts Sanitary Code's minimum standards for fitness for human habitation. Students were there at the time, said Building Commissioner Jay Briggs, and several immediate changes were ordered, including removal of unsafe air conditioning units. The inspection was not the result of complaints but was an annual review of the facilities, he said.

A Sept. 17 re-inspection by Health Agent Judy Giorgio, Briggs, Fire Inspector Richard Shevory and Robert Stello, a contractor representing the owner, found numerous “areas of concern.” In the main house there was peeling plaster, questionable wiring, holes in walls, egress issues, a lack of fire breaks in interior walls, loose or missing foundation and crawl space bricks allowing access by rodents, possible overcrowding of bedrooms, and stairs in disrepair. Bassett House concerns included broken glass, steps in disrepair, overcrowding of rooms and excess storage in the basement.

At the Depot Road building, known as the Blair House, which houses students and visiting artists, the inspection found holes in the walls, undersized sleeping areas, exposed crawl space and water damage, while the theater building revealed numerous fire code violations such as holes in the ceiling and lack of fire partitions.

The health board asked the trust to develop a plan to address the violations, but an Oct. 23 hearing was canceled after the University of Hartford notified the owners that it would not be renewing the lease, which expires March 15.

The situation is similar to the 2014 decision by Ohio University to end its sponsorship of the theater after 57 years. With the theater buildings requiring significant renovations, estimated by the university at $2 million, Ohio University decided it was not willing to sink money into facilities it did not own. A year later, the University of Hartford, which had been a junior partner in the theater with Ohio University for several years, assumed sponsorship of the theater and the lease on the property.

The property has hosted a theater since 1932, with Ohio University becoming involved when Elizabeth Baker, the wife of former university president John C. Baker, bought the property in 1957. In 1958 the theater became the home of the Ohio University Players, with students from OU and other college programs performing a series of shows from June through August.

When Elizabeth Baker died in 1990, her daughter, Eleanor Lawrence, inherited the property. When she died it passed to her husband, Frank Steindler, and the Steindler Family Trust was created in 2016 with Steindler and his daughter Catherine as trustees.

Rust emphasized that the Steindlers deserved praise for maintaining the property as a theater for more than 60 years.

“I think the town and everybody that loves the theater really needs to thank the family,” he said. “At any time, they could have sold it or developed it.”

Scott Hamilton, co-president of the Friends of the Monomoy Theatre, said the Friends are hopeful that the theater will remain a beloved Chatham landmark.

“We're very interested in having the properties be owned by an entity or individual that will continue to use them for the Monomoy Theatre program,” he said. “I have great faith in the organization that is trying to procure the Monomoy Theatre, Monomoy Theatre, Inc. I also have great faith that local developers will realize that doing anything but keeping the Monomoy Theatre as it is would be a tremendous disservice to the community and rankle a lot of people in the town.”