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Cherry Grove’s historic Community House reopens after renovation

The historic Cherry Grove Community House reopened Saturday,

The historic Cherry Grove Community House reopened Saturday, May 28, 2016. Finishing touches on its $1.3 million renovation were going up on May 26. Photo Credit: Daniel Goodrich

Cherry Grove’s historic Community House, a centerpiece of the Fire Island hamlet that almost was torn down after failing a 2010 inspection, has been rededicated after a five-year, $1.3 million restoration.

Residents and community leaders gathered Saturday for a ribbon-cutting ceremony and tours of the refurbished space, including a 150-seat theater for summer events ranging from art exhibits and drag revues to bingo games and religious services.

Civic leaders had contemplated tearing down the waterfront building six years ago after a structural engineer determined its foundation had deteriorated from decades of erosion. “He said, this thing is going to fall down,” said Joyce Yaeger, vice president of the Cherry Grove Community Association, the civic group that owns the building.

Placed on registers of historic places

Residents instead decided to save a building that has come to symbolize the largely gay and lesbian community’s resilience through decades of prejudice and the AIDS crisis. In 2013, the community house was placed on the national and state registers of historic places.

“It’s the hub of the wheel, the heart of our community,” community association president Diane Romano said. “We all own that house. It’s our house.”

Residents raised more than $1 million to fund the restoration. They also obtained a $334,000 grant from the state Department of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.

Residents are raising $300,000 to add a rooftop deck next year that would afford visitors stunning views of the Great South Bay and Long Island’s South Shore.

The restored building features additional space, a hardened foundation, new septic and sprinkler systems and some new wood shingles. The house remained open during summer months the past few years. Construction took place during the winter.

“We tried to leave as much of it as is,” because of its historic significance, Yaeger said. “When you think of what gay people went through in the ’50s and ’60s, this is a safe haven.”

Barn floated to Cherry Grove by barge

The community house started as a barn that had been floated to Cherry Grove by barge on the Great South Bay in 1948. Additions were built over the years as the community expanded — it now has 270 houses, thousands of summer residents and a thriving business district.

The original barn now serves as a stage, believed to be the oldest continuously operating gay theater in the United States. The dressing room walls feature signatures from hundreds of actors who have performed there — including Debbie Reynolds, who applied her autograph last year when she brought her one-woman show to the Grove.

Community volunteers have spent the past several weeks applying finishing touches to the restoration, painting walls, planting flowers and shoring up a proscenium.

“I do think it’s the one focal point in Cherry Grove, where everyone is welcome,” volunteer Troy Files said Thursday as he painted inside the building. “Anyone can come at any time.”

“We’re the permanent heart here,” said building manager Ken Woodhouse, an actor. “When the kids get married and come back, it’ll still be here.”

CHERRY GROVE EVENTS

Monday, May 30: Memorial Day observance, noon

June 11: “An Evening of Celebration and Song,” with Faith Prince and Karen Mason, 7 and 9:30 p.m.

June 18: Cherry Grove Gay Pride Parade, 2 p.m.; fireworks, 9 p.m.

July 15 to 17: Outtakes film festival.

Aug. 6 to 7: Art show

Sept. 10: Miss Fire Island contest

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