The State Theatre building dates back to 1915. Designed by local architect Henry N. Hinckley, it was originally the Ithaca Security Company auto garage and dealership. The Berinstein family, people with a vision, purchased the building in 1928. They hired architect Victor Rigaumont to design and oversee the transformation of the garage and showroom into an atmospheric cinema and vaudeville palace, Rigaumont incorporated elements of the Moorish and Renaissance Revival Styles and the Collegiate Gothic symbolism of Cornell University to create a magical haven for theatre and moviegoers. Opening night, December 6, 1928, was a memorable and entertaining spectacle.
The State Theatre flourished as a premier entertainment venue and was a source of great pride to Tompkins County residents for almost seven decades. Beginning with vaudeville, the theater has evolved with the times. When movies became more popular in the early 1930s, the theater thrived primarily as a cinema house. After World War II, with the advent of television and suburban movies houses, downtown cinema palaces like the State struggled. To adapt, the owners added a second movie screen in the 1970s, diving the balcony from the main house.
Ultimately, the theater closed in the 1980s because of financial difficulties and the demands of long-deferred maintenance. Attempts to revive the theater over the next fifteen years have failed, though the community succeeded in having the theater listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1996. Finally, in 1997, the theater was condemned by the City of Ithaca because of serious roof damage, a failing heating an ventilation system, and the safety hazards caused by falling plaster and out-of-date electrical systems. The owners seriously, though reluctantly, considered demolition.
Community anxiety about the State Theatre was intense. Downtown Ithaca once boasted seventeen grand theaters, including the Lyceum, the Crescent, and the Strand. The State Theatre is the last remaining cinema and vaudeville palace in Ithaca. For the State Theatre to be lost was widely considered unacceptable. But saving the State was an immense task: how could it be done?
In May 1998 Historic Ithaca responded to the community’s distress signal. With community support, the organization purchased the failing structure and assumed the role of preservationist, developer and manager, establishing the State Theatre Restoration Project. Historic Ithaca staff and volunteers galvanized public support and accepted the daunting task of reversing the building’s condemnation. This included replacement or serious repair of the main roof, the dangerously disintegrated plaster walls, the outdated electrical systems, the fire detection system, and the heating and ventilation systems.
Strong community support bolstered this first phase of the project and secured desperately needed funding from municipal, foundation and private donors; leaders from the business, arts, preservation and political communities were involved. In 1999, the American Institute of Architects recognized the State Theatre as one of the most significant architectural landmarks in New York State.
Between 1998 and December 2001, Phase I of the State Theatre Restoration Project was completed. After years of community effort the State Theatre regained its occupancy permit, and with great anticipation the theater re-opened with gala festivities on December 5, 2001. Every seat was full, as young and old came together in a joyous celebration of community.