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Resurrection of the Colonial Theatre documented by Williamstown photographer

By Richard Houdek, Special to The Eagle
Updated:   08/04/2008 10:31:02 AM EDT

Sunday, August 03

PITTSFIELD

Nicholas Whitman first knew the Colonial Theatre as a place to buy art supplies or to have pictures framed.

A photographer, and, as he notes, "an occasional historian," he described his initial visit to the Miller Supply Co. back in the 1990s.

"You're looking at this funny shaped store," he chuckled. "What's this column here, and what are those plaster castings up there on the ceiling?"

He remembers asking a lot of questions of Stephen Miller who, by that time, was running the store founded by his father George Miller in 1953.

"Yes, this is a theater," Miller told him, and over subsequent visits he heard more about the anecdotal vicissitudes of preserving such a building.

Then one day, Miller popped a question: Would Whitman like to see the architectural wonders beyond the temporary walls and drop ceiling surrounding the shop?

He was escorted up a small side stairway into the 1903 auditorium, which, though tattered and crumbling in spots, still suggested a bit of its early Victorian glory.

"As soon as I saw it," said Whitman, "I asked if I could make pictures."

Miller agreed, and Whitman immediately set to work on what has been a 15-year labor of love, photographing the old Colonial as he first saw it, through its restoration, to its reopening as a theater in 2006.


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His photographs will be featured in an exhibition opening Friday at the Ferrin Gallery, 437 North St. During a reception from 6 to 8 p.m., Whitman will sign his new book carrying the show's auspicious title, "The Colonial Theatre: A Pittsfield Resurrection."

Complementing the photographs, there are essays by the author; by Anne Everest Wojtkowski, former Pittsfield mayor and historian; by Mayor James W. Ruberto; by David Fleming, the Colonial's executive director; and an interview with Stephen Miller.

A photographer by instinct, Whitman, 54, was just out of Mount Greylock Regional High School when a couple of his images found their way into the late William Tague's "Eagle Eye" picture page in this newspaper

After earning his bachelor's degree at the Rochester Institute of Technology, he became curator of photography at the New Bedford Whaling Museum in 1978.

While there, he said he looked at archives of thousands of buildings, but was also aware of the many that had never been documented.

"Nobody had done anything; nothing had survived, and you wished that someone had done it," he observed. "And wishing wouldn't bring it back."

He resolved to do such documentation whenever he sees opportunities.

Whitman returned to Williamstown in 1986 with his wife, Mary Natalizia, to raise their two children, and has been working freelance ever since.

Among his early projects was "Mass MoCA: From Mill to Museum," a photo documentation published in 2000 of the transformation of the former Sprague Electric complex in North Adams into an art museum.

"The Colonial Theatre was an obvious choice," he said of the documentation possibilities. "A lot could be done with it."

His exhibition and book offer a scrupulous record of the restoration, from the time the theater and its stage were sealed off from the day-to-day operations of Miller Supply to its reopening.

"It's wonderful," exclaimed Fleming. "(The book) really does capture the latent excitement that was there when people took all those behind the scene tours with Bob Boland."

Boland was the first chairman of an early restoration committee.

"Nick moved ahead, disregarding the admonition of the various contractors that he had to step around (them) to get his pictures. They kept saying, 'Who is this guy? How dare he.' But Nick just kept going."

Many of Whitman's early photos were helpful in securing preliminary public interest in the project and in fundraising.

Whitman said he has made the photographs available for whatever use was needed.

"They are the public's (property) in a way," he observed.

Some of the photos will be incorporated into a more extensive history of the Colonial to be published next year by Wojtkowski and three others.

Her essay in Whitman's new volume recalls some of the early theaters in Pittsfield, such as the Academy of Music, and those in North Adams, including the Empire, whose interior plan was adapted for the Colonial from a design by John Bailey McElfa-trick, the most important theater architect in America at that time.

The Colonial, according to Wojtkowski, was built in what was then an upscale residential neighborhood, much to the disapproval of nearby residents.

The Sullivan Brothers of North Adams discovered that property was less expensive on South Street than in the commercial downtown area to the north. These frugal impresarios managed to bring the entire Colonial project in for $70,000, including $8,000 to buy the property and $3,000 to remove a house on it, Wojtkowski said.

"The location was one of the reasons the Colonial survived," she added. "So many theaters built in downtown urban areas were demolished in later years."

But the major reason for theater survived intact, she stressed, was its in the 1950s by George Miller, and the loving care the Miller family displayed in preserving it.

George Miller's intention always was to have the structure return to its original purpose, and Wojt-kowski was among the first to lend real support to the idea.

As mayor in the late 1980s, she led the first efforts to restore the theater. While Miller was eager to sell it to the city, economic conditions at the time made state funding for such an undertaking all but impossible.

Miller, in an interview for Whitman's book, noted the many times that an extensive system of buckets had to be placed around to catch water from leaks in the roof before roof repairs could be made.

He mentioned, too, evidence of a fire in the basement before the Millers' purchase of the building, and an actual electrical fire in the 1960s caused by an overload from a hotplate in a first-floor apartment.

The arrival of the fire department within five minutes prevented ignition of the paint supply, which would have doomed the building.

In another near-miss, hazardous nitrate film was discovered in the old projection booth, bubbling and ready to explode.

Just before then-first lady Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton visited in 1998 to inspect and pledge federal assistance for the restoration project, Miller said he was trying to tidy up and remove plank bolted to the floor when he heard a shriek of "stop" from below.

The plank had been anchoring a big gas heater hanging from the ceiling.

"The joke was that after preserving the building for 40 years, I'd almost blown it up in a day!" he said.

Aside from these near disasters, the restoration itself had many rough starts, and much unhappiness paved the way to its ultimate fruition.

"Just look at the bullets the Colonial has dodged," said Whitman, noting the potential physical calamities, as well as the political tussles. "It just was meant to be."

Whitman's book doubtlessly will make its way to libraries and coffee tables throughout the area, and in many other places where the architecture of old theaters is cherished.

Statistically, it has 144 pages, with 86 color photos, 58 black and white, including delightful photos of old popcorn boxes and close-ups of original and newly restored carvings, along with the more sweeping shots of the festive crowds thronging the reopened auditorium.

Whitman clearly was delighted with the book's design by Geraldine Millham of Westport. Studley Press of Dalton was the printer.

As with "Mass MoCA: From Mill to Museum," Whitman published the Colonial book himself, and is hoping to recover his costs — which he declined to disclose — through sales of the 2,000-copy first printing.

The book is available for $40 at the Ferrin Gallery and the Colonial Theatre, and at a number of independent bookstores listed on the Web site www.colonialtheatrebook.com.

"Self-publishing is expensive and risky," concedes Whitman. "But you have so much control. You don't have some publisher cutting out copy that you think is important."

While some told him to publish in China, or elsewhere outside the United States to keep the costs down, he said: "Well, the buzz word here is the Berkshire Creative Economy, and this is an example — a local subject, the designer is Eastern Mass., but an old friend, and the publisher is one of our best here in the Berkshires. It's really all very local, as it should be."

On exhibit
What: 'The Colonial Theatre: A Pittsfield Resurrection,' photographs by Nicholas Whitman.

Where: Ferrin Gallery, 437 North St., Pittsfield.

When: Opening Friday, 6 to 8 p.m., and continuing through Sept. 6.

The book: $40 at the gallery, the Colonial Theatre, bookstores and online at www.colonialtheatrebook.com.

Information: Call the Ferrin Gallery at (413) 442-1622.

Visit www.nwphoto.com.

 
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