Historic Binghamton Theater Faces "Demolition by Neglect"
"It is a privilege to announce this morning that the erection of a new, handsome and commodious opera house will be immediately commenced… THIS IS NOT A BLUFF, BUT AN ACTUAL FACT." -Binghamton Republican, September 21, 1891.
For years, local businessman Charles M. Stone advocated the need for a proper venue in Binghamton for theater entertainment. Stone wanted an opera house, and although most agreed that such a building was needed, no backers came forward. Ultimately, Stone built one himself.
At a cost of $135,000, the spectacular 25,000 square foot "Columbia Theatre" on Chenango Street, opened October 11, 1892. Within a year, the Columbia name was dropped and the building would thereafter be known as the Stone Opera House.
The building was designed by Sanford O. Lacy and E.H. Bartoo, likely under Isaac Perry's supervision. With elements of Richardsonian Romanesque style, the distinctive façade was of rough-hewn and carved red sandstone. Above the entrance an ornamented arch framed a stone balcony. The main entrance opened to a large arched foyer with retail stores on either side, and led to a 1500-seat theater with a large stage, orchestra pit, two balconies and eight boxes. A large ballroom was located on the third floor. Promoted as the most impressive opera house between New York City and Buffalo, this was truly a showplace.
As reported in Illustrated Post, February 1895, "the structure is almost entirely of iron, stone and brick so that danger from fire is very small." Eight years later that would be put to the test. On October 8, 1903, after a presentation of Paul Gilmore's "The Mummy," the audience filed out and stage hands dismantled scenery. Around midnight, as they left, one of the stage hands tossed either a cigarette or match onto the stage floor. An hour later the building was engulfed in flames. Shortly after that the entire roof in the rear of the building collapsed.
Stone received word of the fire while on a hunting party in Canada. He telegraphed back: "Will probably rebuild at once." He did.
Over the years many prominent personalities appeared at Binghamton's opera house, among them, Sarah Bernhardt, John Drew, Ethel and John Barrymore, Eddie Foy and George M. Cohan. During the campaign of 1900, vice presidential hopeful Teddy Roosevelt spoke to a full house of supporters. In April, 1913, nineteen year-old Emanuel Goldberg appeared as Sato in the play "Paid in Full." Having recently adopted the stage name "Edward G. Robinson," this would be his first professional stage appearance.
That summer the theater hosted a more somber event. On July 27, twenty thousand people gathered in and around the Stone Opera House. Inside, funeral services were held for twenty one unidentified victims of the Binghamton Clothing Factory fire.
Subsequent years brought a steady decline in quality theatrical productions as the opera house played host to minstrel companies, vaudeville and burlesque shows. Eventually the auditorium was remodeled and converted to a movie theater, reopening as The Riviera on September 1, 1930. In later years attendance again declined. Finally, in 1973 the theater closed. A decade later plans were put forward to convert the building into two 300-seat movie theaters. It was not to be.
Today the Stone Opera House is in trouble. Decades of neglect and exposure to the elements have taken their toll. Paint long ago applied to the façade has eroded over the years. Restoration expert Zig Schafer suspects the remaining yellowed paint can easily be removed. Paint is the least of the problems.
There are gaping holes in the roof. Beneath one of those holes large sections of the ballroom ceiling and floor have collapsed. In some areas snow covers the floor and sheets of ice coat the bare interior walls. Bricks have fallen from the parapets to sidewalks below, still more bricks balance precariously.
The out-of-state owner has recently performed some maintenance. A large hole in the roof at the rear of the building is now partially covered by a blue tarp and alleys on either side have been barricaded, to protect passers-by from falling bricks. Unfortunately, larger holes in the roof remain exposed, and bricks continue to fall.
Director of Community Relations Andrew Block says the City has actively held the owner responsible for maintenance and code compliance. "Early last year the owner was cited for problems with the roof," said Block, and in April another ticket was issued for failing to register the property as required by the Vacant Property Ordinance. "The owner is now working with the City to implement long term solutions for the problems," Block said.
There is serious interest in renovating the building. Local developer Michael Freije wants to see it converted into a theater for live shows and concerts. Artist Anthony Brunelli sees potential for developing it into an arts incubator. "Art centers are popping up all over the country and they have had a dramatically positive impact in the neighborhoods they are in," says Brunelli. He explains that the building would be divided into unique spaces, with artists renting the spaces to work, display and sell their art. The key, says Brunelli, is to get local politicians involved. "Most of these art centers get tremendous support from their local politicians."
It's an idea that appeals to Mayor Matthew T. Ryan and Director of Economic Development Merry Harris, says Block, adding, "we would like to see the building preserved and used for constructive purposes. It played a very important role in our city's history."
Incentives may be available for redevelopment, says Block, such as tax abatement, low interest loans from Binghamton Local Development Corporation, and financial assistance through the Restore NY program.
Freije estimates a cost of $20,000 to temporarily cover the holes in the roof and stop deterioration of the brick parapets. He adds, "total rehab of the building could cost four million or more."
Photographing the opera house last week was an experience. It was pitch black except for a faint blue glow filtering through a makeshift tarp skylight. Dead silence was punctuated with sounds of pigeons and icy gusts of wind. The camera flash revealed bare walls, broken theater seats, collapsed floors and fallen ceilings. Except for the fresh snow drifts, everything was blanketed with a gray, inch-thick mixture of plaster dust and pigeon droppings. Standing in the very spot where John Barrymore once performed, imagining the lights, the sounds and sights of the Stone's glory days, I wondered what lies ahead for this once magnificent building.
Clearly, if basic emergency maintenance is not done immediately this historic building will soon be history. Plans for redevelopment and reuse will be meaningless, and the only remaining evidence of this true Binghamton treasure will be photographs and newspaper clippings. As stated so eloquently in 1891, "this is not a bluff, but an actual fact."