Home News and Features Plainfield Opera House Parking Project Yields Surprise Find

Plainfield Opera House Parking Project Yields Surprise Find

109
0

If, on a certain evening in 1877, you stood at the corner of High and Main streets in Plainfield, you might have seen a poster announcing that popular vaudeville performer Johnnie Prindle was coming to town.

Fast forward to this month and, standing in the same spot, you would have seen a group of volunteers uncovering the original posters, long hidden inside a wall, while tearing down a building to make way for a new parking lot for the Plainfield Opera House.

The whimsical connection between these two events, separated by more than a century, is a testament to the power of community and the enduring magic of the opera house, an active cultural landmark owned by the town and supported by its residents.

One such group of supporters is the Friends of the Plainfield Town Hall Opera House, a not-for-profit group created about four years ago, according to Dave Strong, secretary and founding member. The new parking lot is a long-sought goal of the group.

“We’ve been managing the opera house for the town,” he said, “and in the course of managing it we’ve seen how hard it is for people to get parking.”

Designated parking for the venue is limited to a small lot across the street with space for up to 12 cars. The theater seats 175.

“People always stop and say, ‘Where can I park?’ If they want to have private parties or a wedding, they see that there’s nowhere for their guests to park,” Strong said.

“It’s really a pain for people to have to park in the village and walk, and have to get there early,” said Kathy Light, vice-president of the Friends organization. “We have to have somebody out there to help people cross the street. We put out traffic cones and signs and all that.”

Light, a former music teacher at Goddard College, has organized a concert series at the Opera House for the last four years. The series has attracted a variety of well-known musicians and performers, including pianist Michael Arnowitt and fortepianist Sylvia Berry.

“We started with four or five concerts, and this year we’re up to six,” Light said. “We’ve really developed a great audience that comes out for most everything.”

Initially, the town planned to purchase the property at 5 High Street and take down an existing building to create additional parking.

“There was originally a ballot proposition at Town Meeting in 2018 to buy the property, and it passed,” Strong said. But after learning additional funds would be needed for asbestos removal and demolition, the town got a case of cold feet. A second vote was held and the proposition failed. But Strong had another idea.

“The Friends had already started raising money to help the town buy [5 High Street]. So, we said, let’s just continue to raise money and try to buy it.”

The Friends organization negotiated a deal with the property owner for thousands less than the city was to have paid, Strong said.

“He sold it to us for $40,000,” Strong said. An additional $30,000 was spent on demolition, asbestos removal, and cleanup.

The new gravel parking lot is expected to provide approximately 20 additional parking spaces for theater patrons. Strong said the community has supported the project.

“Everyone realizes that you have to have more parking if you’re going to promote [the opera house] as a performance space,” Strong said. “As far as I know, the community is very happy with what we’re doing.”

After purchasing the property, the Friends hired contractor Ki Carter to take the building down to the first floor. Volunteers have been working to complete the demolition. Carter has continued to work on the project as a volunteer and to advise the Friends organization on the use and sale of lumber salvaged from the building.

“There have been about a dozen volunteers working on this, gutting the building, removing clapboards, and disposing of demolition materials by filling dumpsters,” Strong said.

While removing a section of wall in the back of the basement, Carter and the volunteers made a startling discovery. Hidden between the wooden sheathing and clapboard were posters promoting circuses and vaudeville events coming through town in 1877.

“The Full Brass Band and Orchestra, the Witherells, Johnny Prindle,” Strong said, reciting some of the names displayed on the vintage posters.

“I did some research, and the Witherells were a family of musical geniuses from upstate New York,” Strong said. “Johnny Prindle was a very well-known vaudeville singer-impersonator, and he traveled around the country.”

The posters were remarkably well-preserved, their colors still vibrant after 143 years wedged beneath cedar clapboards. The bigger mystery was why they were there at all.

Strong, a former high school history teacher, had a theory.

“Plainfield used to have a sawmill and a gristmill right at the waterfall, that’s why it’s called Mill Street,” Strong explained. “There was a series of mills on the other side of the river, and there were several fires there over the years.”

In 1877, Strong said, a mill caught fire and jumped the river, setting numerous buildings on High Street ablaze. The 5 High Street property replaced a building destroyed by the fire, Strong said.

“At the time of the fire, there was a hotel and a stable in the lot, and the stable was not burned.” Strong said. He theorized boards from the stable were used to sheath the lower level of the new building.

This re-use will be repeated in 2020, when lumber recovered from the fallen building is used to create a backstage addition to the opera house, Strong said.

“We’re going to use the lumber to build the addition, and we were thinking of varnishing [the posters] and putting them up as part of the wall.” he said.

Strong said the parking and backstage projects benefit each other.

“We’re getting parking that is desperately needed if the opera house is going to be successful, and we’re also getting lumber for the addition,” he said.

Funds to complete the backstage addition may also come from the sale of the finished parking lot, Strong said.

“We don’t want to be the owners of a parking lot, frankly,” he said. “I think once [the parking lot] is cleared and people are using it, we’d like to convey it back to the town.”

Strong estimated construction on the project could begin in 2021.

“We’d like to get it done earlier, but we haven’t raised any money for that yet,” he said. “We’ve got to finish clearing the lot, we’ve got to transfer it to the town, and I don’t know exactly when that will happen.”

Another improvement to accessing the opera house will be the construction of a new sidewalk to solve the issue of crossing the road on a dangerous curve near a confusing intersection, which was so bad it convinced some locals in the past to “walk away” from the building altogether.

“It’s hard to get across the street,” Strong said. “But the town was able to get a Bicycle Pedestrian grant to improve access to the opera house.”

The grant will fund a five-foot-wide sidewalk on the Main Street bridge “so you can walk on the sidewalk all the way up to a crosswalk” with a pedestrian-activated crossing signal, Strong said.

The combination of additional parking and the new sidewalk is “part of making the opera house viable,” Strong said.

“We’ve been hearing a lot about small towns in decline, and I think Plainfield falls into that category,” he said. “But one thing we have is an arts venue, which is very attractive and accessible. And people are looking to it as a way to bring people to town and help boost this feeling about Plainfield.”

Construction bids on the sidewalk project will begin this winter, Strong said, with construction to commence in the summer of 2020.

For more information on the project and upcoming events, visit

plainfieldoperahousevt.org