NORWALK, Conn. — New York City theatrical heavy hitters, including award-winning actress Joan Copeland, made their way to Norwalk on Wednesday to fight for the White Barn Theater.
“It has been at the White Barn that some of the theater’s greatest actors and playwrights came to try out works, ideas, many of which were destined for Broadway and beyond,” Attorney Stephen Nevas said as the first person to testify at the Historical Commission public hearing prompted by a demolition delay request put in by Diane Lauricella of Save Cranbury.
(A video of the entire hearing appears at the end of this story.)
City Hall’s Council chambers were crowded with a who’s who of theatrical out-of-towners – many of whom arrived in a stretch limo and others on a chartered bus – along with Norwalk regulars, for the more than 2-hour long hearing. There was no shortage of testimonials about the historic importance of the theater, and some references to the barn’s architectural significance as well.
Copeland called the White Barn Theater, established in 1947 by the late Lucille Lortel at 440 Newtown Road, “hallowed ground” and “a place where young actors can gain confidence.”
The star-fueled effort – a letter from actor Kevin Spacey was read into the record as part of the proceedings – comes after developer Jim Fieber has gotten approval from the Zoning Commission to build a 15-home conservation development on the property Westport/Norwalk line, after a development plan by the Connecticut Friends School fell through.
The Friends would have saved the theater; Fieber plans to demolish it.
“This dream is too important to let die,” said Copeland, the younger sister of celebrated playwright Arthur Miller, an actress with off-Broadway, television and film credits that include her brother’s play, “The American Clock,” for which she won a Drama Desk award in 1981; long-running TV soaps “One Life to Live” and “Search for Tomorrow,” a recurring role on “Law & Order,” and guests shots on “Chicago Hope,” “ER,” “All in the Family” and “Naked City,” among others.
Vincent Curcio first read a letter from Donna McKechnie of “Chorus Line” fame.
“It is an absolute crime and travesty to lose this part of our cultural heritage,” McKechnie wrote, according to Curcio. McKechnie tried out a one-woman musical in the Norwalk/Westport theater and performed in a play that originated there, he said.
Curcio then dropped names, including Philip Huston, Eva Marie Saint, Zero Mostel, Geoffrey Holder, Tennessee Williams, Sam Shepard, Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, Athol Fugard and Steven Boyer, in describing Lortel as a woman with a courageous, independent, ground-breaking spirit.
Curcio then addressed comments made by Blanche Marvin, published on NancyOnNorwalk on Tuesday, asserting that Lortel did not want the theater to continue.
Marvin was a 60-year “good friend” of Lortel’s, but, “She and Lucille had very different views on a lot of things and this was one of them,” Curcio said. “Lucille, as Attorney Nevas has said to us, put it in her will that she wanted the White Barn to continue.”
There are some who say the theater is in tough shape, beyond repair. Curcio said he had been inside it in 2012 and it “was in wonderful shape.”
“Some things have been done to the building, some with proper permits and others it seems not that way,” Curcio said. “But, in any case, you can put it back together again and I’ll bet you it would be less than you would think to change it around again.”
The assertion that the theater is in “wonderful shape” was, at the end of the hearing, disputed by Attorney Peter Nolin, representing Fieber.
“If these people are serious, they’re going to have to do some serious work,” Nolin said, producing a study done a year ago for Fieber by Aschettino Associates LLC, a structural engineering firm.
An excerpt of the study:
“Based on our observations, it is our opinion that the building has suffered more than 50% damage due to mold, rot and termites mostly in the additions. While the original barn roof framing does not appear to have been severely damaged, the framing appears to be undersized and in some cases inadequate for the building code prescribed snow loads requirements.
“In order to restore the building to a normal building code compliant use, in addition to all the architectural compliance issues that must be addressed, which are not part of this report, there are major structural sections of the building that most be replaced and/or reinforced and all the interior and exterior finished including the walls and roof sheathing most replaced. It is therefore our opinion that the building may be beyond a feasible repair project and should be demolished.”
Nolin said the theater is likely in worse shape now, given the work to remove asbestos and the “massive snows” last year.
Norwalkers who spoke included Lauricella, who had a difficult time keeping her composure as she said, “This revival project holds such great promise for Norwalk and its surrounding communities. Finally, our society is realizing that the arts can help solve many of our social ills and are a crucial pathway for our youth to explore their future and solve their problems.”
The crowd also included theatrical folks from Westport. Melody James said the “vibrant, provocative” White Barn changed her life and inspired her, and Lortel was “a very important woman to the theater.”
“We never know where the next artist that will really change the world will come from,” James said. “One of the most critical things artists need is space and time and safe places to do their work. I beg you to give space and time to this endeavor and allow the torch to be passed.”
Nevas asked the Commission to take the time to explore alternatives. “The foundation is prepared to sit down, but we need time,” he said.
The Common Council last year changed Norwalk’s demolition delay ordinance from 90 days to 120 days.
“Surprisingly, we are not here on the 10th day not here on the 20th day, we are here on the 100th day,” Nolin said. “So again, if these people want to save this building you have to move and move quickly.”
Fieber has had an offer on the table for many months, Nolin said.
“As far as I know we have never gotten an answer,” Nolin said. “We have never gotten a counter proposal and we have never gotten an answer to the outstanding offer. I checked with my client again tonight, that offer, despite all the money he has spent on the applications to get this through Zoning and Conservation, is still on the table, unchanged as to exactly what he offered many years ago. We are willing to listen, he is willing to sell the property, what is required is money frankly.”
The Lucille Lortel and Waldo Mayo White Barn Foundation was formed several months ago by Lortel grandnephew Waldo Mayo, 25. Board member Gigi Van Deckter said before the hearing that Fieber keeps moving the target for the foundation.
“It’s been a year, he says October,” she said, asserting there have been “four iterations” of a deal.
“Waldo met him a year ago” to start the discussion, she said. Raising money takes time as potential donors need to liquidate assets to come up with the funds, she said.
Nolin said, “These are some very, very rich people outside of Norwalk. We will be reasonable but my client has invested quite a bit in moving forward and we can’t wait forever.”
Historical Commission Chairman David Westmoreland said after the hearing that the theater has obvious historical significance and the building may have architectural significance. It was “great” that so many people from inside and outside of Norwalk took the time to express passion about it, he said.
What can the Commission do?
“We can make recommendations and submit them to the building official: that is what the city code says,” Westmoreland said. “We can try and use our influence. We are going to think about it, see what we heard and try to come up with some ideas and recommendations that we will make to the developer as well as to the city. Maybe there are some things the city can step in and do like they did with Fodor Farm and some other things. Maybe a low-interest loan. I don’t know what the city can and can’t do but I will try to sort those out over the next couple of weeks. Then the Commission will review them and vote on the recommendations.”