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we forgot about the helen hayes theater 

nyack, ny
ny state council for the arts grant proposal
sponsored by the van alen institute
in collaboration with sam zeif 
2019 


...an unsolicited proposition for the reinvention
of a once vibrant, now vacant and deteriorating,
theater in the heart of nyack, new york.

 

Until about ten years ago, the town of Nyack was organized around a theater that anchored its bustling Main Street. Named for its most celebrated resident, the Helen Hayes Theater hosted plays, musical performances, movies, lectures, and was home to the HH Youth Theater. However, despite its integral role in the daily and cultural life of the community, changing economic and political conditions led to its closure.

The 70’s era boxy brick building now sits conspicuously empty, its once celebrated interior rapidly decaying due to water damage and negligence. Its face to the street is a split level of empty retail spaces separated from the sidewalk by a perpetually dark sunken courtyard that collects debris and dissaudes any possibility of public use. Surrounding it is a sea of windswept municipal parking lots, and recently, an equally vacant Veterans Memorial Park. Despite enthusiastic efforts to bring the site back to life, the local government blocked a plan conceived by land-use consultants and rejected the funding it had acquired. Perhaps as no surprise, the commercial real estate company that owns the building has since been advertising it as the new home of a big-box store. In place of a theater, Main St. will get a Dollar General. 



Our project is a comprehensive proposal to resist this familiar loss of public space through a new process of design. Where traditional and uninspired modes of action repeatedly fail, we insist that simple, imaginative design and an innovative approach to development can leverage the historic and urban value of the theater’s emptiness. With an unsolicited proposition, we plan to demonstrate the possibility of reinventing 142 Main Street as a prototypical public commons: a cultural and civic space defined by an uncommon diversity of community use.

To do so requires expanding the realm of the designer to include both the product — how can architectural intervention transform a forgotten building’s relationship to its town and its needs? — and the process — how can design (and its imagery) actually catalyze a project by engaging residents and stakeholders to believe in its viability? In a reciprocal process, we will use preliminary design imagery that shows the inherent potential of the building to both challenge a stifling sense of pessimism, and start a new conversation about its possibilities.



Collaborating with residents, community groups, and local businesses, we will establish a unique mixture of programs and partnerships that could occupy the building: a reborn Helen Hayes Theater might spill over into an internal courtyard managed by the Art Cafe, forming a public living room and informal performance space; a new plaza might cover the sunken commercial front and connect to the street, allowing the Village Market to sell vegetables and flowers outside while expanding the space below for the PlayMoveSing youth dance studios. Through these dynamic relationships, we can develop management structures, financial strategies, and innovative programming that establish the project’s tenability. Together, design and strategy present a comprehensive document for action.

This unsolicited proposal, then, is not meant solely to provoke the imagination, but to catalyze real, ground-up community action that derives newfound leverage from the process of design. We are seeking this grant to support that effort: to enable us to pilot the process, to present the proposal at a town hall meeting, and to document all of the effort online such that it might serve as a prototype for similar buildings and towns.


The story of 142 Main Street is both central to the specific history of Nyack, NY, and emblematic of a larger urban condition found in city and town centers nationwide. As vast sums of social and financial capital flood into select urban areas, many smaller municipalities fight an ongoing struggle with limited resources and bureaucratic stalemates. Buildings left vacant by these shifting economic tides, once a testament to vibrance and viability, now serve as a constant reminder of their perceived struggle. If these buildings are ever acknowledged, it is typically only for their demolition — indeed it is easier to erase an old theater with a box store than to transform it into a community-oriented cultural space.

Simultaneously, social impact investing (long term investment that seeks to make positive societal change while collecting smaller and slower returns) is quickly gaining widespread traction and actively evolving. Building projects that directly and deliberately benefit communities while making modest returns, which might otherwise be financially untenable, present obvious and promising possibility for this type of investment.

And yet, in its current composition, the architecture profession is necessarily complicit in these urban inequities and unable to leverage financial trends that could positively affect them. Despite a unique ability to imagine spatial solutions to problems of fundamental societal importance, we face a reality in which we are systemically late to the conversation, arriving after political will and financial capital have already spoken.


However, this process presents an alternative. By employing architectural design and imagery to initiate and assemble interest in projects that lie outside of the traditional market, architects can deliver agency to communities by including them in conversations that would otherwise take place behind closed doors. By addressing spaces of neglect and deterioration, they can substantiate the vital history of storied sites while proving that it is possible to change their trajectory. And by directly benefiting the public through use and access, architects can access new forms of financial investment and foster new systems of partnership. As a prototypical process, there manifests a newfound agency to transform unused spaces into new public resources.