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HorseAbility at SUNY Old Westbury gets assist from movie to renovate

Tina Fey stars as Portia Nathan and Paul

Tina Fey stars as Portia Nathan and Paul Rudd stars as John Pressman in the movie "Admission," a Focus Features release. Credit: David Lee / Focus Features

When HorseAbility moved into its dream home in Old Westbury, the center that provides equine therapy for special-needs children and adults had problems: raccoons had run wild, the barn was "junglelike" and the roof was falling apart.

Then the center became a movie set for the Paul Rudd and Tina Fey film "Admission," currently in theaters. In the process, it got a Hollywood-style sprucing up for its role as an alternative school, paving the way for a more extensive overhaul through a major fundraising campaign under way.

The overall renovation will make the center's barn fully handicapped accessible, add therapy rooms, classrooms and an elevator, and officials hope to build an indoor arena. The project will cost an estimated $2.5 million, said Katie McGowan, center founder and executive director.

HorseAbility has a commitment with SUNY Old Westbury, site of the 20-acre center, to refurbish the 27,000-square-foot red brick barn built by equestrian F. Ambrose Clark in 1912 on his former estate.

Before, the barn was "swamp-like," McGowan recalled. Within weeks of the center's move-in, the cleanup crew "came right away," McGowan said, and "really brought life to the barn that has been dormant for the most of 30 years."

As rider Victoria Russo, 18, of Floral Park, put it after a film screening last month: "I felt like I was at a movie star's house."

For much of the film, HorseAbility doubles as the school run by Rudd's character. Before filming began last year, the center had only recently moved from its 2-acre space in Melville.

The film's impact was immediate. The film company hired a professional cleaning service, which spent several weeks clearing out haylofts and replacing broken barn doors with tall, modern windows. The film production company even paid for air-quality control tests.

"They cleaned years' worth of dust and dirt, to a point where they could actually work in the environment," said Jamie Thomas-Martin, the center's director of operations.

A year later, the barn's second floor still holds tables and chairs from the classroom in the film, perfect for future therapy rooms, the center said.

This is not the first such makeover for Dan Tresca, Brooklyn-based assistant location manager for "Admission."

"It's kind of daunting to have to clean it up, fix it, and make that space function for yourself," he said in a phone interview.

Ironically, the barn's ramshackle appearance led producers and location scouts to the center in the first place. "It was a work in progress," Tresca said, explaining that Rudd's character's rustic New Quest school drew immediate contrast to Princeton University, where Fey's admissions counselor character worked.

In the film, Fey wonders if Rudd's "prodigy" student is the son she gave up for adoption. "We want the kid to go to Princeton; you want to know that [success] can happen from anywhere," Tresca said. "You don't have to be in this incredible school to make it."





Founded in 1993

Previous location was grounds of the Thomas School of Horsemanship, Melville

Moved in spring 2012 to estate of F. Ambrose Clark, now the SUNY Old Westbury campus

"Admission" film production company cleared haylofts, upper barn; paid for air-quality testing; and left school supplies

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