I don’t know that I’ve spoken with anyone more enthusiastic about a place than Brett Bernardini is about The Stissing Center in Pine Plains. He is the executive director of the Center, and his passion for what’s happening and what’s possible there are palpable. It turns out he’s far from alone in his passion. What is it about an old building with a storied past and a glittering future that has mobilized so many?
The Stissing Center is the name of what was once called Memorial Hall, built at 2950 West Church Street (Rt. 199) in Pine Plains in 1915. It was built and financed as a gift from the New York philanthropist Mary Ellen Lapham Saunders to honor her grandparents, John and Elizabeth McIntyre, and their children, with whom she had grown up in Pine Plains. Three stories high and over 19,000 square feet, the big brick building featured a theater on the first floor, where vaudeville and minstrel shows entertained a steady audience.
In the early 1900s, Pine Plains was a popular destination for people from around the Northeast, especially New York City. There were 18 trains on three railroads going in and out of town daily. The trains transported goods like iron ore and even milk, but they also brought passengers. Memorial Hall was the place to be on a Saturday night in the 1920s.
As film replaced live shows, the Hall followed suit. It was remodeled to accommodate movie-goers, and in 1935 it reopened as the Pine Plains Theater, with 284 seats. At around the same time, the railroads fell off as other means of transport became more popular. Pine Plains’s tracks were pulled up and sold as scrap. That didn’t stop people from continuing to make Pine Plains a destination. The theater thrived for decades, and the building’s other floors were used as meeting spaces for local organizations.
From Hall to Mall
Memorial Hall remained a town hot spot as a movie theater into the 1960s, but attendance started dropping off and expenses ballooned. The movie theater shut down, and Memorial Hall’s doors were closed. Its potential remained, and enthusiasm for it, as well.
In the mid-1970s the Hall was purchased by Bill Bartolomeo and four partners, who made renovations and opened the building as the Pine Mall. Inside were shops as varied as a hairdresser, coffee shop, even a sporting goods store. The basement was made into a laundromat. A dance school called Stissing Loft operated out of the top floor.
Keeping the space relevant to the community and economically viable at the same time proved challenging. Bartolomeo and the partners sold the building in the late 1980s, and it passed through the hands of a few owners, none of whom could make it work. Memorial Hall was emptied and put up for public auction.
Potential and a plan
The building attracted interest through the years, but nothing stuck. Finally, in 2014, the Hall was purchased by Jack Banning, Ariel Schlein, and Christian Eisenbeiss, all with strong local ties and an indomitable desire to restore the Hall to a destination for performing arts and community activity.
They wanted this to be clear to the community from the beginning, and they knew that getting support on a local level meant just that. “We called a meeting of Pine Plains residents to ask what they wanted,” Jack says, “after some hesitation, the laundromat was brought up. Everyone wanted that back in the building.” Banning and his partners made the laundromat a priority, and within a year it opened at the rear of the building.
The vision for the Hall as a performing arts and community space was next on the docket. Banning reached out to the architect Doug Larson who, with his wife, Victoria, were New York City weekenders passionate about Pine Plains. In 2008, Doug had painted a mural to honor the town’s history on another building Banning had an interest in, so the two knew each other. Would Doug be interested in helping restore Memorial Hall? The answer was a resounding yes.
Enter the architect
“I looked at the building before the auction,” Doug says, “and I did a master plan for it. It needed everything for modern functioning – bathrooms, mechanical systems, handicap access,” he continues, “and lighting and sound systems and theater lights.” Working with as many local businesses as possible, Doug got to work. The goal was to be able to host an inaugural concert in late 2019 – with Wynton Marsalis. It happened. The show sold out. The audience was excited. The community’s curiosity was piqued. The Stissing Center was back on the map for Pine Plains.
The work was far from over, however. Along came COVID and the closing of just about everything. But it was also an excellent opportunity to improve the building, and Doug was able to do that. What’s taking shape inside and out is a building that incorporates modern touches with a strong sense of the past. The main performance space (recently dedicated as Banning Hall) features a recessed open floor with built-in bench seating around it, allowing for different seating configurations for the audience. Downstairs is The Cellar at the Center, a more intimate gathering and performance space that will also include a community kitchen.
A beautiful model of what the Stissing Center will look like when the renovations are complete is encased in plexiglass for all to see between the first and second floors of the Center. “The ultimate purpose,” Doug says, “is to invite people inside. There’s a lot of brick and wood here, and the building is big,” he continues, “but the space is being adapted so that it has multiple uses. Eventually there will be offices and a gallery on the third floor, and the rear of the building will be addressed to support an elevator, stairs, and heating and cooling systems.”
Making It happen
A grand vision takes grand talent, and Pine Plains seems to have that going for it, as well. Patrick Trettenero is a veteran theater producer and director, and former television marketing executive at NBC Universal in New York. He and his husband bought a home in Pine Plains about six years ago when they discovered what they considered an “oasis” of a charming farm town. Patrick immediately wanted to give back to the place that had won him over.
“One of the first opportunities I had was to help with the inaugural concert at the Stissing Center,” he shares. “Through that experience I met board members and others, and I joined the board. Not long after, Jack [Banning] was looking to take a lesser role, and after discussions with many others, I became the board president. My number one priority was to find a new executive director.” (Brian Keeler, the Stissing Center’s executive director for seven years, had said he wanted to step down in 2022.)
“We’re a young organization with big challenges,” Patrick said. “We needed someone who could further our mission and vision, of course, but also someone who could fundraise and oversee a capital campaign. After an extensive search, we chose Brett Bernardini. He’s creative, funny, and fiercely driven.”
Back to Brett
I caught up with Brett on a sultry summer morning as he was getting ready to go for a walk through Pine Plains. He’d been up for hours already, though it was only 8:30. “It’s a beautiful small town,” Brett said, “and the morning walk is part of my routine.” Brett is no newcomer to the challenges of an arts organization. He grew up in Minneapolis and has worked in the arts and education across the country, from Connecticut to Pennsylvania to California and Nebraska. Why Pine Plains?
“This is a wonderful place,” he says, “and a unique venture. The Stissing Center is going to be so much more than a performance space, though part of the plan is for it to be a pre-eminent center for arts and culture in the Hudson Valley,” he says with confidence. “Within 20 years, the Stissing Center will grow into an intimate player in the vitality and economy of the area,” he continues, “with the intention of giving back to the community. We want to be a home for educational programs, programs for the elderly, programs for children, a space for speakers and writers to share their stories, a place for non-profits to grow their interests – and yes, a place for a laundromat.
I ask myself every day,” he says, “how can the Stissing Center’s work be something that positively impacts Pine Plains and the greater Hudson Valley, with the guiding principle that we aren’t here to change Pine Plains, we’re here to build on a Pine Plains everyone is proud of. It’s only what has value to a community that is defended, and the value is in the ways that we serve. We want to offer programming and partnerships that matter,” he says emphatically. “No one person is the answer. This is a place for everyone.”
Bringing it alive
A beautiful example of this was the production of a reading of the Thornton Wilder play, Our Town, performed at the Stissing Center on July 9. The play received a Pulitzer Prize in 1938. It’s the story of people growing up in the fictional small town of Grover’s Corners. To Patrick Trettenero, the story resonates for any small town, and he felt it would be one of many special ways to celebrate Pine Plains’ Bicentennial. Taking on the production as the director, he cast only townspeople to play the characters – some of whom had no previous experience performing on a stage to a live audience.
“In all my years this is one of the more gratifying productions I’ve done,” he shared. “Everyone rose to the occasion. The show was sold out. Rarely have I felt such a supportive audience. People laughed. People cried. It was hugely gratifying. That’s what The Stissing Center is all about.”
A look at the programming through 2023 shows the range Brett, the board, and The Stissing Center team are committed to. A first-ever summer children’s series happened on Saturdays through early August. Writers from the Rhinebeck Writers Retreat shared a work-in-progress in mid-August. Music from string quartets to tango is featured through December.
To achieve the stated objectives of being “Your Stage Next Door,” and “Home: A Celebration of Belonging,” the Center has an ambitious plan. “I like to lead from the future,” Brett says, “and there are clear strategic goals for the next five, ten, even twenty years.” The theme for 2024 is The Stories We Tell.
Marie Stewart has stories to tell. She is the Center’s director of operations. Marie is fifth generation Pine Plains. As a child, she took dance classes on the top floor of Pine Mall. She watched Memorial Hall languish for years. In 2018, Marie was looking for part-time work in town, and started at The Stissing Center as a bookkeeper. She was soon won over by the vision for the Center and the people working to bring it alive. “It’s not what I thought it was,” she says candidly, “you have to see it to believe it.” With a can-do attitude and energy to spare, Marie is an ambassador for the Center, happy to answer anyone’s questions at any time, to listen with an open mind, and to invite people inside.
It’s a good thing there’s so much passion for the project, as the hands-on job of fulfilling the vision for The Stissing Center is not for the meek. In addition to what it can showcase, the building itself is in need of immediate attention. “The roof has to come off,” Brett says. “Replacing it is critical.” A capital campaign is underway, with work projected to start this fall. “We’ll have to put scaffolding around it,” Brett says, “but we’ll keep the programming going at the same time.”
From Hall to mall to Center; from the inspiration of John and Elizabeth McIntyre to their granddaughter, Mary Ellen Lapham Saunders; to the enduring efforts of those in Pine Plains and beyond; to the vision of the Bannings and the passion and enthusiasm of the staff, the board, Brett Bernardini, and so many others, there is something very special that’s alive and well and welcoming at 2950 Church Street in Pine Plains. Check it out. •
To learn more about The Stissing Center please visit thestissingcenter.org.