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First Look: Saving 'Park Theater Hudson'

Shanan Magee— Park Theater Hudson
Shanan Magee— Owner of Park Theater Hudson

Shanan Magee was still living half a world away, in Johannesburg, South Africa, when he received a call from his father that would likely change the course of his life.

It was the spring of 2016, and Magee had been living and working there for five years. Magee’s father, Edward— a craftsman by trade who had grown up on 5th street in Hudson and resided at the time across the river, in nearby Coxsackie— had been Skyping regularly with his son about buildings that he saw for sale in the area.

One of those buildings stood— barely— at 723 Warren Street in Hudson, diagonally across the street from the 7th St. Park. Constructed in 1921 but with 1880’s, Italianate-inspired architecture by William Plass, it was the first building of its kind to be made of all metal— steel, to be precise. It opened on May 9, 1921 as a cinema known as Park Theater, where upwards of 500 moviegoers a night could marvel at the projected images of the silent film era. Later in its life, the building served as an auto parts store— later still, the office and showroom of an orthopedist.

But as they invariably do, time and neglect had exacted their toll, and the building had been deemed ‘Dangerous and Unsafe’ by the city’s code enforcement. It was in danger of collapsing, and even taking down neighboring buildings with it.

“I remember walking in the first day and being like, ‘you’re out of your mind,’” Magee recalls. “But the energy of this place was like no building I had ever walked into. You could feel the aura— you could feel the history. And that feeling was overwhelming.”

The allure of giving this old building a new lease on life was enough to lure Magee back from South Africa to his home in upstate New York (he was born and raised just across the river, in Catskill) after nearly 30 years spent traveling the world.

Magee purchased the property in October 2016, and then set about the monumental task of breathing life back into the building.

First, they needed to stabilize the building to simply avert its collapse. They tapped local stabilization specialist Ed Russell, nicknamed the “Building Whisperer—” one of the few individuals who had the audacity and experience to even attempt such an undertaking. Dozens of hydraulic jacks were placed to correct the 18 inch differential between the left and right side of the building. The process was painstaking— what was initially anticipated to take six months proved to be two years. But in time, the building was straightened and stabilized sufficiently to allow for a foundational wall to be rebuilt and additional renovations to commence.

It was nearly impossible to find photographs or drawings of the building as it appeared in decades gone by, so when presenting construction plans before Hudson’s Historic Preservation committee, Magee referenced a single postcard bearing an illustration of the former Star Theatre, a contemporary to Park Theater, which once stood at 510 Warren St.

Star Theater— Hudson, NY
Postcard image of Star Theatre, a contemporary to Park Theater that once stood further down the block on Warren St.

The next three years were spent with a seemingly endless cadre of craftspeople, electricians, plumbers, masons, and painters parading in and out of the building, practicing their respective trades to bring the structure back to something resembling its former glory. Magee took a hands on approach, working tirelessly on as many aspects of the renovation that he could. Moulding was re-created to mimic its original look and the grand exit, with 12 ft open door span, was rebuilt to spectacular effect. The steel ceilings were stripped, repaired, replaced, and painted as required. And to provide a finishing flourish, Magee and his friend Nate Debonis created an intricate tile mosaic on the ground of the entryway, spelling out “Park Theater” in beautiful script lettering.

The second and third level floor-through apartments, each 1600 sq. ft., were completed first, and tenants moved in in the summer of 2020. The first floor forward space was completed soon thereafter, with much of the original steel and wood walls left with the paint and varnish remaining as they were found. A custom-furniture maker out of Red Hook, Brooklyn, called Withers & Grain, will soon occupy the space— an environment that will perfectly complement their live-edge wood creations.

A temporary dividing wall sections out what was previously the theater space toward the rear of the first floor— the space is cavernous and, as of yet, unrenovated. Magee has yet to tackle that project, but has every intention to.

Magee inspects the unrenovated rear theater space

While it’s unlikely that Park Theater will return as a cinema, Magee has plans to bring live entertainment to the space this summer. He hopes to leverage his music industry connections to produce a series of free, live music performances for all audiences.

Park Theater Hudson celebrates its centennial by reopening its doors to the public for the first time in decades this Saturday. There will be live music, with performances by Jedi Johnston and Escaper, as well as Pam Grande, of Hudson River Tattoo studio, located just across the street from Park Theater, and Renee Payne.

“I set out to make this centennial celebration a rebirth of this building. We’re going to open the doors and put two bands out front. Nothing is better at bringing people together than music.”

When asked what kept him coming back, day after day, to work on this building that required so much time and devotion to get right, Magee said only this: “The energy of this building— the cries of pain and the whispers of appreciation as we were working on it— that’s part of what drew me back over and over again. And to this day, it’s still there for me.”

Park Theater Hudson’s centennial celebration is this Saturday, May 8, starting at 7pm. The renovation of the Park Theater was made possible by a grant from Empire State Development.

Words by Alexandre J. Petraglia President, Hudson Business Coalition, Inc., and Founder, Hudson City Digital

Portraits, stills, and video editing by JD Urban. Additional post-production by Allison Valiquette.

Proper distancing and health standards were maintained during the production of this interview.