Clarification (11/14/2021): An earlier version of this article didn’t make explicitly clear that the Hangar is operational and ready to stage shows as of Oct. 28. Visit the Hangar’s website for information on upcoming events.
ITHACA, N.Y. — The Hangar Theatre, a mainstay of the Ithaca area’s performing arts scene, is at a water-inundated crossroads.
Severe flooding has wracked the theatre twice this summer, most recently on Oct. 26, when a day of consistent rain met with water-saturated ground. Run-off filled the four creeks that cut through the City of Ithaca and poured into Cayuga Lake. Cascadilla Creek broke its channel banks in some areas, Fall Creek reached its highest crest in recent years, but The Hangar—which is located on a flood plain where the Cayuga Inlet feeds into the lake—saw infrastructure built to handle the water levels of a 100-year flood get put to the test.
R.J. Lavine, the Hangar’s Managing Director, said that the problem has become perennial and, as a result, the theatre’s insurance provider will drop their flood coverage starting in 2022. The year prior, Lavine said that the Hangar’s insurance provider would only continue to cover flooding with a 500 percent rate increase and reduced coverage.
The Hangar was ready to put on shows just a couple days after the flood on Oct. 26, but the conversation has started about whether the Hangar Theatre Company should consider moving its programming out of the Hangar Theatre.
“It’s a bit of an existential crisis,” said Lavine. “If it’s too expensive to make the investments that we need to safeguard the property and the grounds against these increasingly destructive and frequent flooding events, is this a property we continue to invest in?”
The Hangar launched a successful fundraiser about a week ago, blowing past its $5,000 goal and raising almost $7,200 to cover damages from the October’s flooding. The funds were put toward replacing damaged equipment, and cleaning the floors in the theatre, which are mostly made of cement as a flooding precaution.
Over the years, the theatre company has made numerous upgrades to mitigate water damage, including floodgates that can seal doorways to keep floodwaters out—although they have leaked with the most recent flooding—and also stone baseboards designed to keep water from seeping into the inside of the Hangar’s walls which would lead to mold growing.
These stone baseboards were installed in 2010, and were designed to safeguard the Hangar’s walls in the instance of a 100 year flood. Lavine said that the water was just able to seep above the baseboards and seep into the sheetrock. It’s not critical damage, said Lavine, but “It is very concerning.”
Shirley Serotsky, the Hangar’s Artistic Director, said, “This is the reality of the world we’re living in right now.”
Sertosky would rather be developing the Hangar’s programming and getting the community involved in theatre, but more frequent flooding pulls her and everyone at the Hangar’s attention away from the reason they want to be there.
“It’s a little heartbreaking when our focus all becomes about mitigating a crisis that we can’t do anything about,” said Serotsky. “So yeah, that’s rough, but you know, we keep moving forward.”
The City of Ithaca owns the Hangar building and the land it sits on, but the Hangar Theatre Company is responsible for maintaining and keeping the building vital. Lavine said that there are a few gray zones as far as where the Hangar Theatre company’s responsibilities end and the City’s should begin, most notably a drainage ditch on the road near the Hangar. According to Lavine, it’s consistently full of water and should be drained and dredged.
The Hangar is also exploring the possibility of getting on the Historic Register, which could lead to additional funding in the instance of severe flooding. The Hangar is literally an old airplane hangar. Its story begins in 1912 when it was a municipal airport and testing site for the WWI era planes constructed by the Thomas-Morse Aircraft Corporation. In 1975, as a result of a long-standing movement in the community, the Hangar became a theatre after years of disuse.
Via private donations, grants, and other lines of revenue, the Hangar Theatre has attracted community investment throughout its decades of operation, including $4.6M dollars in 2010 for a complete renovation, including some weatherproofing and floodproofing measure for the building. Lavine and Sertosky both spoke about the need to honor the community’s support for the theatre, but that the viability of the site is going to become a long-term conversation.
Serotsky said, “I believe very much that the Hangar is defined by its programming and not by its building, but there’s much to be loved about that building. It has an incredibly rich history.
“The truth is theater-makers can make theater literally anywhere,” said Lavine. “But my sense is that the Hangar Theater, as a theater company, has such a long history with this building, that it would be awkward to separate.”
“I would love to stay on that property, if at all possible, but we will have a tough choice to make.”