Monomoy Theatre Redevelopment Gets First Airing; Year-round Theater, Housing, Retail Included

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Local Theater , Historic preservation

The Monomoy Theatre. In preliminary discussions last week, the new owner said he plans to renovate the theater and house on the property and build housing for those 55 and over at the rear of the land. FILE PHOTO

CHATHAM – The new owner of the Monomoy Theatre property is proposing to restore and add on to the historic theater building and antique Greek Revival home at 774 Main St., as well as construct housing for people 55 years of age and over at the rear of the lot.

Greg Clark of Chatham Productions LLC was before the historic business district commission last Wednesday with conceptual plans for the redevelopment of the property, home to the Monomoy Theatre for more than 80 years. Four of the seven existing buildings on the property would be removed and the other three would be renovated to create a year-round theater facility including dormitory space for a summer theater program.

“Our intention is not just to have it be a summer theater,” Clark said. “We want to make it so that during the off season there can be other things happening there. We want to be able to let the community use it, we want to be able to also bring in some other shows that are traveling for a one or two day performance, so during the rest of the year it's not just dark.”

This past summer was the first since 1958 that the theater was dark. Previously it had been a summer theater program of Ohio University, and later the Hartt School at the University of Hartford. The owners, Steindler Family Trust, decided to sell the nearly 3.3 acre property after the town found numerous health and safety violations—mostly in the living quarters that housed the nearly 40 theater students who lived, worked and performed on the property—and the University of Hartford decided not to renew its lease.

Clark, a Newton Upper Falls developer who has a home in town, purchased the property in September for $3,650,000. The property includes the theater compound at 774 Main St. and a small house at 70 Depot Rd.

Clark is pursuing National Historic Register status for the theater, originally a barn moved to the property around 1880, and the double Greek Revival home, built in 1861 and known as the Washington Taylor House. New historic survey forms have been submitted to the Massachusetts Historical Commission and the National Park Service, which maintains the National Register. If accepted onto the National Register, the restoration work would be eligible for tax credits.

Four of the buildings are in poor condition and, under the preliminary plans, will be removed. The house at 70 Depot Rd., a shed on the west side of the property, the so-called carriage house used for costume storage and refreshment sales, and a former Main Street gas station moved to the property in 1990 and used for housing and dressing rooms will all be torn down, said Victoria Clark.

The roof ridge on the scene shop is sunken and the end walls are falling apart, but Greg Clark said its basic structure may be salvageable. The plan proposes placing it on a new foundation adjacent to the theater building and using it as rehearsal space. A new scene shop will be built on the east side of the theater building, along with new rest rooms. A new retail space, which Clark said would include a restaurant, is also shown on the east side of those additions. Restaurants are a common feature of many Cape theaters, he said, and “pulls the whole thing together as a fully functional theater.”

Two newer additions on the Washington Taylor House will be removed and new construction will connect the building to the theater. It will serve as retail space associated with the theater, with housing on the second floor. Clark said that space above the theater used as an office and storage space would be renovated into dorm rooms for the summer theater program and tied into the house.

“The reason why the theater stopped working is because the board of health shut it down due to deplorable conditions of housing,” he said. Community theaters on the Cape and in New England were asked about their biggest challenge, he added, and not surprisingly it was housing.

“That's the biggest expense,” he said. Using the dorm space as housing for workers the rest of the year will be explored, he added.

The Taylor house will be restored exactly as is, Clark said, although it will be placed on a new foundation. Because of building codes, the main door of the theater may have to be changed from a single to a double door, he added.

The housing development proposed for the rear of the property, where a tented rehearsal space has been in the past, would have access off of Depot Road. The plan shows 10 buildings grouped around a circular drive. Clark said the housing would be restricted to those 55 years of age and older. He did not provide details on the number of bedrooms or whether the housing would be multi or single family. He did not respond to an email seeking clarification by The Chronicle's deadline.

HBDC member Sam Streibert said the commission would be looking at the appearance of that portion of the project as well as the buildings along Main Street. The design of the housing would be developed as the planning process progresses, Clark said.

“We're just here to talk about the different things we're proposing to do,” he said.

Commissioners expressed support for the overall concept.

“It's a heck of a project,” said Chairman Dan Sylver, although he was concerned about the number of vehicles entering the property from a driveway on the west side. “It seems like it's going to put a lot of pressure on that area if does become successful, which I hope it does.” With the post office, community center and a number of retail stores in the immediate vicinity, “It's not an easy area to get to as it is,” he said, suggesting a joint meeting with the planning board once the project is formally submitted to review details such as access and parking. The commission was scheduled to conduct a site visit on Monday.

The plans show parking on the west side of the property and behind the theater. Clark said while that would accommodate more cars than previously were able to park there, “we don't know yet” if it will be sufficient for future use.

If the buildings are accepted to the National Register, the HBDC will still have the final say over the development, although the National Park Service is likely to have input, especially if tax credits are involved, said Historical Commission Chair Frank Messina. While the commission “would love to see nothing change,” Clark's plans seem like a good compromise, he said.

“We need to work with any applicant to try to find a reasonable way to salvage this truly historic property,” Messina said.

Clark did not say when final plans would be filed, but said he expects to work closely with the HBDC and other town agencies.

“We expect to be back in front of you several times,” he told the commission.