At the Vineyard Playhouse on a recent Tuesday morning, white vans from an assortment of Island construction companies parked along Church street and in the tiny lot nearby. A stack of lumber sat outside the side door of the building. Inside, work boots thudded on the pine floor and a buzz saw whirred. And upstairs, light streamed through tall windows in a spacious second-story room, which on June 21 will feature the world premiere of the Whaleship Essex, marking the completion of the historic building’s restoration.
When the lights go up in June it will be the culmination of a massive collaborative effort to honor the history of the building while ensuring that it’s equipped for the twenty-first century and beyond.
The playhouse building is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and has stood on Church street since it was originally built in 1833. It has had many incarnations since then, including its first life as a Methodist meetinghouse. It has also been a town meeting hall and a Masonic lodge. It became home base for the Vineyard Playhouse in 1982.
“We wanted to get this building in shape so that it’s around for generations to come, for the next 200 years,” playhouse executive director MJ Bruder Munafo said.
Restoration efforts began in 2010, with the launch of a capital campaign called A Time to Act. The $5 million campaign features three phases, the first of which was the expansion, renovation and preservation of the Church street building. This phase was budgeted at $2.2 million but project costs are approximately $2.5 million, and the capital campaign is ongoing, with fundraisers planned for later this month and throughout the summer.
The second phase of the plan will be to secure actor housing. The third phase will be to create a central space for storing and building sets.
“This wouldn’t have happened without a whole community of people,” Ms. Munafo said.
The project was led by James Glavin of Deca Construction. With the broad infrastructure completed, Mr. Glavin is tapping into Island resources to complete detail work, from wooden trim to tiling.
“We’ve pulling from a variety of carpentry specialties,” project foreman Ed McCormick said on Tuesday.
Some building elements, such as the massive trusses in the theatre space and its three-inch-thick wooden floor, are holdovers from the original structure and were left intact. Others, such as the intricate penrose rhomb pattern of tile in the bathrooms (laid by Chris Buehler) and the wooden arch beneath the control room (constructed by boat builder Rick Brown), were wholly new visions. Still others are recycling efforts. The intricate tambour windows of the box office that roll open employ a pulley system from an old set of Playhouse doors. The windows were engineered by Mr. Glavin’s daughter Celeste, and built by Ms. Munafo’s husband, Paul. Robbie McGregor of Vineyard Haven has also provided carpentry detailing, as has Mr. McCormick.
“The detail in certain areas of the theatre is quite remarkable,” Ms. Munafo said, referring to the wainscotting made of reclaimed cypress trees. The old-growth trees are from Georgia, and date to the approximate era of the original playhouse. The story goes that back then the logs were transported by river after being felled, and the densest ones sank to the bottom, only to be recovered centuries later.
“All of the best wood,” noted Mr. McCormick.
“I learn something new every time I come in here,” Ms. Munafo said.
Reclaiming efforts took place on-site as well. Heavy pine doors from the old lobby space were trimmed down and moved upstairs, where they are now the entry points to the theatre.
Mr. Glavin’s careful preservation efforts go hand-in-hand with making sure that the playhouse is equipped with fully up-to-date audiovisual equipment and technology. The original trusses in the theatre are juxtaposed with steel beams, painted black, that will eventually hold a lighting and rigging system.
“The superstructure of the building is supporting a lot of it,” Mr. McCormick said of the future system.
But even a superstructure needs a little help. The board of directors is holding a spring fundraiser on April 27. Call 508-693-6450 or visit vineyardplayhouse.org to get involved and to check out the full summer schedule.