WELLSVILLE - The cold and snows of winter have halted renovation work inside the old Liberty Theater on Main Street in Wellsville since December. A great deal of progress has been made toward The Liberty being restored to something near its former glory over the last few years, however, with big plans in store for 2014.
The theater building has been the property of Potter Players Community Theatre since 2003, when it was gifted the deed from the Liberty Theater Association. The LTA, spearheaded by Erin Roberts-Orr's father, Bill Roberts, first began efforts to restore the building in the late 1990s, several years after the final feature was shown on its screen in 1991.
According to Roberts-Orr, who is leading the restoration project, the most important goals of making the theater habitable again have been achieved. The installation of a new roof and new windows mean the Liberty is now weathertight.
This photo, taken last autumn, shows the inside of Wellsville’s Liberty Theater from the projection booth. Rows of seats from the old auditorium at Eastern Gateway Community College will be reupholstered and installed after new flooring, plaster and paintwork are completed. (Photo by Richard Sberna)
During the 1990s when the old building sat empty, heavy deterioration set in. Irreparable damage was done to the original seats, flooring and hardwood stage, all of which had to be torn out and disposed of.
The inside of the theater building is now a shell, stripped of peeling paint and plaster down to the bare walls and a new concrete floor, which was poured several years ago. Removal of that which was ruined and unfit for use has mostly been accomplished, leaving a building that Roberts-Orr says is fundamentally solid and in fine shape.
"The walls are good, the structure is sound," she said.
Progress has been slow because the restoration is dependent on donations for most of its headway. Roberts-Orr says that seeking grants and working on fundraising activities take up most of her time on the project. Since the recession began in 2008, she admits finding money has been difficult.
In addition to a $109,000 grant - most of which was spent on the new roof - Roberts-Orr says they have been very fortunate to receive many generous donations from local residents. All told, she says more than $130,000 has been spent on the theater and estimates a price tag of "probably three-quarters of a million to a million dollars to finish the entire project."
The project has also relied heavily on volunteer labor. Sometimes, it's individuals lending their professional experience or expertise in completing specific tasks. Other times, it's groups from local churches and organizations pitching in with less specialized duties.
One such group included members of the freshman class from American Spirit Academy in Glenmoor, who volunteered a few days last November to work cleaning up the theater as a service project. Orr praised the students for their generosity and dedication to an effort that they had no memories of or personal stake in. "It's great to see their enthusiasm in a building that they'd never been in before," she said.
There have been numerous other clean-up days since Roberts-Orr took over the project three years ago, with volunteer workers including members of the Wellsville Volunteer Fire Department and the youth group from Wellsville First Christian Church sweeping up, scraping peeling paint, pulling vines off the exterior walls and hauling out rubbish.
The old warped stage was one of the final bits that had to be removed before the work of installing new fittings could begin. Roberts-Orr says the installation of new drywall in the lobby area, followed by the construction of a new stage, are at the top of her Liberty to-do list.
The purchase of used items has helped to keep costs down. When Eastern Gateway Community College renovated its auditorium, grant funds were used to buy the seating, which is in fine shape but in need of new upholstery.
Roberts-Orr says they also acquired the stage curtains and lighting from the auditorium at Toronto High School via an online auction. "We probably got well over $10,000 worth of equipment for $350," she said. Volunteers assisted with disassembly at the school and shipping back to Wellsville.
When completed, Roberts-Orr foresees the Liberty hosting live theater events staged by the Potter Players, as well as concerts and school events. "We want it to be a community building where everybody is welcome," she said. The LTA charter bylaws strictly prohibit political events, but other than that, she says it will be open for the community to use.
"I don't want to put my heart and soul into this and have it just sit here," she said.