In the early 1900’s, Acushnet Avenue in the North End of New Bedford was a hub of entertainment, with a number of theaters offering vaudeville, comedy acts, exotic dancing and other types of live shows. There was the Idle Hour. Allen’s Theater. The Comique. And the Cordelia Vien Theater, named for a local businesswoman, Cordelia Vien.
Rachel Alison, with New Bedford’s Waterfront Historic Area League, says Vien also owned the hotel across the street – the Hotel Terrain.
“There was actually a tunnel that went from the hotel to the theater, so performers would stay at the hotel and then come across to the theater to perform,” said Alison.
In 1916, the theater was bought by a trio of local businessmen, who re-named it The Strand.
“They kept a few live shows but they mostly switched it over to silent films,” said Alison. “And then they operated the theater until 1926, when the national chain E. M. Loew’s bought it. It was designed as an ornate Italianate façade, and then in the 1950s, they did a major renovation to modernize the theater, and so they ripped off the original Italianate façade… they stuccoed it over.”
The theater changed hands again in 1983 and operated as The Center, until that was halted by a fire in 1990. The Cape Verdean Association of New Bedford bought the building in 1992, and they use it on a limited basis as a cultural center.
The building is in tough shape. Its dark, cavernous interior still bears many of the ornate touches from the vaudeville glory days, even as the plaster crumbles and the paint continues to peel. But that’s about to change. The Waterfront Historic Area League is partnering with the Cape Verdean Association to restore the grand old theater.
Rachel Alison was able to dig up the original blueprints for the building’s facade at New Bedford City Hall. Katherine Duff, Director of Studio to Sustain, the architecture and design firm handling the restoration project, called Alison’s discovery a gold mine.
“We took a look at those, and then we came back here and did a little excavation – we were sort of like scientists looking at the building, and we uncovered the historic framing at the front of the façade in places, and we sort of pieced that together and realized that, in fact, an ornate wood Italianate façade. So that really said to us the bones for restoration are really prime,” said Duff.
Duff says the original façade may have been removed as a result of urban renewal trends during the 60s and 70s.
“To a certain extent, New Bedford suffered through some of that urban renewal, but we were also a relatively poor community, and so we didn’t lose a lot of our history because we didn’t experience a lot of that corporate investment and urban renewal that tore down a lot of our historic neighborhoods,” Duff said. “So you got things like facades covered in stucco, but the building’s still here. You take the good with the bad.”
Duff says that despite its shabby appearance, the theater is in surprisingly good shape, and ideally suited to the restoration effort.
“The scale of this building right now is so wonderful,” said Duff. “That’s what makes it so manageable in terms of envisioning a restoration of the project, is that it’s not overwhelming. It’s really quite a lovely scale. While there’s a bit of work here, it’s not like it’s an entire city block.”
The project’s backers have applied for several state grants, and they plan to mount a capital campaign to raise additional funds for the restoration. The goal is to have funding in place by the Fall, and construction completed by sometime in 2019.