Work Could Begin This Winter at Montauk Playhouse

More than 75 percent funded after meeting $250,000 challenge grant
With more than $575,000 in donations this summer, the Montauk Playhouse Foundation is ready to move ahead on a $8.5 million expansion that will include performance spaces and two swimming pools. Jane Bimson

With just a few permits to secure, work on the long hoped for expansion of the Montauk Playhouse Community Center could begin this winter. The $8.5 million undertaking is to include two swimming pools, classrooms, and fitness and performance spaces. 

The project got a major boost this week when it met an anonymous $250,000  challenge grant on the way toward the best-ever summer of donations, totaling more than $575,000. The cultural arts and aquatic center project is now more than 75 percent funded, enough to break ground  sometime this winter. The timeline for opening is spring 2020.

“We had an incredible month and what is exciting to me is that support came from both the year-round and summer community,” Susan Henkin, the Montauk Playhouse Community Center executive director, said.

 Ms. Henkin said the expanded playhouse would be a resource both for Montauk and the entire Town of East Hampton. She said donor support grew rapidly once the playhouse committee made revisions to the plan based on concerns from the public. The development of a sustainable business model for the center’s operation also was key, she said. Support from East Hampton Town, most notably a $3 million infusion of capital last year, was also a positive signal to potential donors.

“The fact that the town got behind it really, really helped,” Ms. Henkin said. The $250,000 challenge from Sarah and Maurice Iudicone, part-time Montauk residents, ignited the playhouse board of directors to get out and seek additional contributions, large and small. Ms. Iudicone is a member of the board.

Securing the last few approvals should not present difficulties, Ms. Henkin said. The East Hampton Town Zoning Board of Appeals gave its okay in August. No exterior changes to the look of the 1920s mock-Tudor building are planned, and the final go-aheads could be in hand by January, she said.

In a statement from the Playhouse Foundation this week, Perry B. Duryea, the president, expressed optimism that the remaining $2 million budgeted for construction will be raised. “When people see the shovel go in the ground, I think you will see more private money come forward,” he said in an interview.

For Mr. Duryea, who is known as Chip, motivation to become involved with the playhouse grew out of his sense that Montauk was changing, and not always for the better. He said that once the playhouse is completed, it could help maintain a feeling of community identity. 

“We need this so that Montauk remains Montauk,” he said.

“I’ve heard many people ask, ‘When are they going to build that pool?’ It’s not they. It’s us. It’s everyone who feels that the citizens of Montauk, young and old, deserve a vibrant community center. We’re the ones who are going to build the pool. And as for when? The answer, with your help, is now,” Mr. Duryea said.

The Montauk Playhouse already serves a wide range of residents’ needs. It houses  child-care and senior-citizens nutrition and care programs, a town clerk’s office, physical therapists, workout classes, a gymnasium, and an outdoor playground. Several Montauk School sports teams either train or compete there as well. And most activities are free.

The playhouse was opened in 1927 as an indoor tennis stadium by Carl Fisher, whose Miami Beach Bay Shore Company developed the first 3,500 acres of previously uninhabited mangrove swamp on Biscayne Bay in South Florida. Fisher’s vision was summed up in his new company’s slogan, “Miami Beach in the Winter; Montauk in the Summer.” 

The building is on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1929, a boxing match drew more than 1,500 spectators there to see Rene De Vos, a European middleweight champion, defeat Babe McGorgary of Oklahoma. 

Fisher’s plans ran up against the Great Depression, with the result that many of the Montauk Beach Company’s assets were sold. The Navy took over the building during World Way II and used it for drills and lectures.

By 1959, Fisher’s tennis stadium was a shambles, overgrown with shrubs, every window broken, and a leaking roof, according to The East Hampton Star. 

A 600-seat theater run by Edward Pospisil Jr. was the next tenant, with red wall-to-wall carpet, showing movies and live productions. It was Mr. Pospisil who apparently first called the building the Montauk Playhouse. 

The actress Myrna Loy ventured east from where she was staying at the Sea Spray Inn in East Hampton to see “From the Terrace” there in 1960, The Star reported. In 1963, a plan by the Montauk Beach Company to convert the playhouse into a supply yard for pre-fabricated “Leisurama” houses was approved by the town despite community opposition. 

Films were shown there to an audience seated in uncomfortable canvas folding chairs until the early 1970s. Mr. Duryea said that he recalled seeing Bruce Brown’s classic surf movie “Endless Summer” there in about 1966 or ’67.

Much later, but before the property came into town ownership, there was an abortive plan for a private affordable housing project there.

The playhouse community center opened in 2006. With the addition of the swimming pools and performance spaces, the playhouse foundation plans to make the operation self-sustainable with money from memberships, admission fees for events, and rentals. 

One of the two pools planned will be for laps, and one for casual use. The interior will be large enough for conferences. Performances by the Music for Montauk series might take place in the 240-seat theater, where movable risers would allow for trade shows or business meetings.

This story has been updated with the correct spelling of Sarah and Maurice Iudicone's surname.