By Jeanne Sager
FERNDALE April 19, 2005 A diamond has been discovered in the roughs of Ferndale.
When volunteers from Cornell Universitys historic preservation planning program descended on the hamlet Friday morning, they found a rare chance to bring a building on the National Register of Historic Places back to its former glory.
The Shelburne Playhouse, originally the social hall for the Shelburne Hotel, has been obscurred by cedar trees for years, left vacant since the main building burned to the ground in 1965.
But Ferndale resident Maurice Gerry has always known it was there, just waiting.
Gerry grew up down the hill from the old hotel of distinction.
His business partner, Allan Berube, said Gerry used to sneak into the playhouse as a kid to see the shows on Saturday nights as did many other townies in the days of the Borscht Belt.
About three years ago, Berube and Gerry finally bit the bullet. They laid out the funds to purchase the Shelburne Playhouse, and they started whats been a three-year process to restore the old building.
Projects over the years have included replacing part of the roof and jacking up one entire side of the building to replace the footings, Berube said.
But the visit from the Cornell students who spent Friday through Sunday in the Liberty area was a major step in readying the old building for play once again.
Nick Hayward, co-organizer for the student group, was part of the restoration of the Town and Country building on Libertys Main Street last year.
When his classmates were looking for another historic site for their annual work weekend, they placed a call to Berube and the folks in Liberty.
We already had such great contact with Allan, and everyone just really enjoyed the experience [last year], Hayward explained. The people of Liberty are such tremendous hosts.
Even for students who have been involved with renovating an old hospital building at Ellis Island or restoring a Civil War-era battery in New York City, there was a thrill in tackling an old playhouse in the backwoods of Ferndale.
Hayward said their entire weekends worth of work was aimed at giving the students a heightened appreciation for the physical labor that goes into preservation.
But it was also to help a community.
In this day and age, every town has the same chain restaurants and stores, Hayward said. But not every place has a Town and Country building.
Every place has a Home Depot, not every place has a Shelburne Playhouse, he added. This is important to help a community create a sense of place.
According to Berube, the playhouse, which has existed on Upper Ferndale Road since the 1930s, will soon be a community building.
The plan is to use it as a multi-use community center for workshops and dances, shows, weddings, parties . . . Berube explained. Its Ferndales public space.
Berube, who until recently ran the Liberty Theatre, has a fascination with history. The Village of Liberty trustee also has a love of community.
This space will combine the two, he said.
All the special events I did at the Liberty Theatre, I saw how successful they were at building community, Berube explained. Id like to see that grow, and this is a space where that can happen.
Town of Liberty Supervisor Frank DeMayo sees the Shelburne Playhouse as a destination for the future of Liberty.
Already hes planned a town meeting to be held on-site shortly after the playhouse renovations are done in July.
But first, the building needs to be finished.
Berube said windows have been replaced, and electric, plumbing and septic all have to be updated. Because the building is used only in the summer, theres no heat or insulation to speak of.
Students, community volunteers and Cornell alumni accomplished a major amount of the work over the weekend, even uncovering more history from the graffitti on the walls of the projection room that doubled as the waiters quarters to artifacts hidden in the ceilings.
Squirrels had packed away pieces of paper to build nests in the abandoned playhouse, and Berube collected the strips coming up with a train ticket for a trip from 42nd Street in New York City to Ferndale via the old O&W (the cost was just 60 cents for a ride on June 24, 1942), fragments of old Shelburne Hotel postcards, Tums wrappers from the 1960s, even a package of Goobers.
The postcards are being put to good use theyre guiding the preservation efforts by providing a picture of the past.
Next up is creating a parking lot and readying the playhouse for the public; which Berube hopes will be accomplished by mid-summer.
I love history, he said. And this is one way to bring it into the present.