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The Colonial Theatre: A Pittsfield Resurrection Hardcover – June 1, 2008


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Editorial Reviews

Review

Resurrection of the Colonial Theatre Nicholas Whitman first knew the Colonial Theatre as a place to buy art supplies or to have pictures framed. He described his initial visit to the Miller Supply Co. back in the 1990s. "You're looking at this funny shaped store," he chuckled. "What's this column here, and what are those plaster castings up there on the ceiling?" He remembers asking a lot of questions of Stephen Miller who, by that time, was running the store founded by his father George Miller in 1953. "Yes, this is a theater," Miller told him, and over subsequent visits he heard more about the anecdotal vicissitudes of preserving such a building. "As soon as I saw it," said Whitman, "I asked if I could make pictures." Miller agreed, and Whitman immediately set to work on what has been a 15-year labor of love, photographing the old Colonial as he first saw it, through its restoration, to its reopening as a theater in 2006. Complementing the photographs, there are essays by the author; by Anne Everest Wojtkowski, former Pittsfield mayor and historian; by Mayor James W. Ruberto; by David Fleming, the Colonial's executive director; and an interview with Stephen Miller. A photographer by instinct, Whitman earning his bachelor's degree at the Rochester Institute of Technology, he became curator of photography at the New Bedford Whaling Museum in 1978. While there, he said he looked at archives of thousands of buildings, but was also aware of the many that had never been documented. "Nobody had done anything; nothing had survived, and you wished that someone had" he observed. "And wishing wouldn't bring it back." He resolved to do such documentation whenever he sees opportunities. Among his early projects was "Mass MoCA: From Mill to Museum," a photo documentation published in 2000 of the transformation of the former Sprague Electric complex in North Adams into an art museum. "The Colonial Theatre was an obvious choice," he said of the documentation possibilities. "A lot could be done with it." His book offer a scrupulous record of the restoration, from the time the theater and its stage were sealed off from the day-to-day operations of Miller Supply to it s reopening. "It's wonderful," exclaimed Fleming. "(The book) really does capture the latent excitement that was there when people took all those behind the scene tours with Bob Boland." The reason the theater survived, was its purchase in the 1950s by George Miller, and the loving care the Miller family displayed in preserving it. George Miller's intention always was to have the structure return to its original purpose, and Wojtkowski was among the first to lend real support to the idea. Miller, in an interview for Whitman's book, noted the many times that an extensive system of buckets had to be placed around to catch water from leaks in the roof before roof repairs could be made. He mentioned, too, evidence of a fire in the basement before the Millers' purchase of the building, and an actual electrical fire in the 1960s caused by an overload from a hotplate in a first-floor apartment. The arrival of the fire department within five minutes prevented ignition of the paint supply, which would have doomed the building. Aside from these near disasters, the restoration itself had many rough starts, and much unhappiness paved the way to its ultimate fruition. "Just look at the bullets the Colonial has dodged," said Whitman, noting the potential physical calamities, as well as the political tussles. Whitman clearly was delighted with the book's design by Geraldine Millham of Westport. Studley Press of Dalton was the printer. --The Berkshire Eagle, 8/3/08, By Richard Houdek

Photographer offers book on Colonial project Nicholas Whitman is releasing his latest book after spending a decade revealing the most intimate parts of a Pittsfield landmark. The 144-page hardcover book documents in photographs and text the $21.6 million renovation of the historic Colonial, which was finished in August 2006. "In the case of a building about to undergo big changes, evidence can be lost," Whitman said last week. "So, there is an urgency to make the record. Part of what makes the photographs interesting is, when the building is restored, the 'before' pictures are a benchmark for how the building has been changed." The restoration of decaying buildings has inspired Whitman before. He has documented the transformation of the former Sprague Electric mill complex that now houses Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art and the River Street row house buildings that are now home to The Porches Inn in North Adams. "Their past can be read by looking at the wear marks and scars which cover them," Whitman said of old structures. "This physical evidence is the grist from which I make photographs." "Culling thousands of images down to 150 means some real favorites end up on the 'cutting room floor,'" he said. "By the end of the process, my objectivity was shot: I was down to about 250 and stuck. Luckily, my designer Geraldine Millham and my wife, Mary Natalizia were able to make the hard choices I couldn't." Whitman said he hopes people who pick up his book will appreciate the images and the story of the Colonial. "On the one hand, I simply wanted to present these scenes for people to view and mull over," he said. He said the quality of the images is very good, thanks to the printer, Studley Press of Dalton. "But, there is a story line here, too," he said. "It is a story of hope and optimism in the form of George and then Steve Miller, who protected the theater for half a century until the people of Pittsfield could come together and reclaim and restore this landmark." Whitman created the story from three separate series of photographs he compiled throughout the decade. "One series was of the building and its details before it was changed," he said. "A second series was made from the same location before, during and after the restoration. These were made with a very wide-angle camera and covered 140 degrees of view -- the lens actually spins around, and it's like looking at a scene while turning your head. A third series was more conventional, of the restoration in progress." In the book, Whitman builds a context for each of the series. "The context is provided in essays on the theater's history by former Mayor Anne Everest Wojtkowski, on the theater's relationship to Pittsfield's revival by Mayor James W. Ruberto and the Colonial's current state by Executive Director David Fleming. Also included is a statement by the photographer and a revealing interview with former owner Steve Miller." As the Colonial's restoration progressed, the photography industry changed as well, Whitman said. "There were dramatic changes in the field of photography with the shift from analog to digital, and capability was greatly expanded. Digitized negatives were given a whole new life. Also, this book was written and designed on a computer, which enhanced creative control." Whitman said he felt relief upon finishing the book, which met his expectations. --North Adams Transcript, 6/16/08 By Bonnie Obremski

About the Author

Nicholas Whitman is a photographer and historian living in Williamstown, Massachusetts. His photographs are in private and public collections including the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield. He is the former curator of photography at the New Bedford Whaling Museum. Books include A Window Back: Photographing a Whaling Port and Mass MoCA: From Mill to Museum.
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The Colonial Theatre: A Pittsfield Resurrection
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