Cornell Theater off-limits to theater

Workspaces invade due to cramped town hall quarters.


Updated Dec. 7

The Katharine Cornell Theater, an auditorium space renovated with funds delivered from pre-eminent 20th century actress Katharine Cornell, is no longer hosting any theater or music shows. 

The space closed to the public, as most places like it did, during the main thrust of the COVID-19 pandemic. It now contains what Tisbury town administrator Jay Grande described as three work spaces. 

Some in the local arts community aren’t pleased the venue has been sidelined. John Crelan, artistic director for Arts and Society, hoped to use the space this past June for a James Joyce Bloomsday event, but the town denied the request. Crelan is now forming a protest group he hopes will reopen the theater. 

Grande said the town has little choice, as conditions one floor below the auditorium space are packed. “We’ve basically run out of room in the lower level,” Grande said.

Previously used as an arts space as well as a meeting place for the select board, the auditorium, façade, and other portions of the building were heavily renovated in 1971 through the Peter C. Cornell trust. Katharine Cornell, a longtime seasonal resident of the Island, facilitated the gift. Despite the gift, there appears to be no covenant that requires the town to continue using the space as a theater. 

The building housing the auditorium is generally referred to as Tisbury Town Hall. The building is a 19th century church on Spring Street, and has long been used as town offices. Following the renovation in 1971, it also became a venue for the arts, which it apparently had been in the past when it was run by the Vineyard Literary Association. At the time of the renovation the building was called Association Hall, a name that reflected the Vineyard Literary Association’s prior stewardship of the place. However, Tisbury voters changed the name to the Katharine Cornell Memorial Theater in 1974, the same year the actress and benefactor died. Select board chair Roy Cutrer declined comment on the status of the auditorium, and referred questions to Grande. Select board member John Cahill also declined comment.

The extent that the theater is being used for town offices became clear when the select board held an impromptu meeting in the theater on Nov. 30, after their original meeting spot, Tisbury Senior Center, was closed because of a heating issue. Much of town hall has been off-limits to the general public throughout the pandemic.

Grande said members of the finance team are presently in the auditorium, and will likely transition back downstairs. He said he’s aiming to install himself, human resources coordinator Pam Bennett, and executive assistant Elena DeFoe in the space eventually. Grande said such a group would be less impactful than members of the assessors office, for instance, because of all the maps and paperwork associated with the assessors office. 

Grande said if it proves possible to “carve out space” so “small recitals” can occur in the auditorium, he would like to see that. To that end, he said, he’s had an eye out toward keeping the stage, the areas in front of the stage, and the center of the auditorium clear of obstruction.

“The first step is we want to recapture the meeting space, and make sure we can fit everybody in the most efficient way possible, which is very challenging, as you know, with this building,” Grande said. “Very challenging.”

Grande said the town has invested in the space since he took the job, including revamping the sound and lighting systems, replacing windows, and renovating the door. “We’re putting the steeple back on shortly,” Grande said. 

The steeple was removed as part of a restoration effort in 2018. Tisbury DPW director Kirk Metell confirmed the steeple is expected to arrive on-Island on Dec. 16 from Kentucky. A Baxter Crane is scheduled to hoist the steeple into place Dec. 17. Metell said the new steeple is all aluminum, and weighs a third less than the old steeple. He also said the bell inside the steeple won’t be rung manually going forward. “It will be electric now,” he said. 

“The ultimate goal is to preserve the theater upstairs, and not do anything that would be of permanence,” Grande said of the auditorium. “It’s really a need to accommodate and provide reasonable accommodation for employees and the functions that are here at town hall.”

Grande noted a new employee is on deck in the accounting department, and that prospect will shrink available space further. “There’s no great answer in the short term,” he said.

Crelan said the first time he was in the auditorium was in 1972, when he went to a wedding reception. Since then he’s used the venue himself repeatedly. “I’ve been using that many, many times over the years,” he said. 

Crelan said he’s called some Tisbury taxpayers and asked them to call the select board and ask that the space be opened again. “You’re a taxpayer, make some noise,” he recalled telling one person. “Most people don’t even know it’s closed,” Crelan said.

Crelan said he plans to call a radio station too. 

In an email to The Times, Martha’s Vineyard Museum research librarian Bow Van Riper wrote that Cornell had defined hopes for the auditorium. He quoted the the 1971 Tisbury Town Report: ‘In restoring Association Hall, Miss Cornell and her fellow trustees have hoped to add to the pleasures of the Island by providing an attractive setting to encourage the performance of plays, concerts, films, and other entertainment so that once again the hall will serve as a social and cultural center, much as it did when it was owned by the Vineyard Literary Association nearly a hundred years ago.’” 

The renovated building opened to much fanfare in 1971 as part of Tisbury’s Tercententenary celebration. 

“For the first time since the end of World War II, the ancient bell that was once Tisbury’s only fire alarm pealed forth, celebrating 300 years of town history and accomplishment,” the Vineyard Gazette reported at the time. “In the auditorium of the towering town hall that was built as a Congregational church in 1844, but became the seat of government in the 1880s, Miss Cornell expressed her pleasure in being able to give a gift to the town, and, in turn, was presented with a gold Tercentenary medal by the chairman of the board of selectmen, Frederick W. Thifault.”

The Gazette went on to report, “On the walls, murals painted by West Tisbury artist Stanley Murphy depicted Vineyard history — winter at Menemsha Creek; Moshup, the [Native American] deity, standing chest-deep in Island waters, holding aloft a struggling whale he has just captured. A third mural, a portrait of a whaling crew, is still being painted, and a fourth, Summer, will be added by fall.”

“Presently I don’t want the murals obstructed, because I like to be able to have people be able to view them,” Grande said. “I’d also like to have the venue restored, at least for small recitals …” 

It was unclear when that might be, however. 

The Cornell renovation also included staircases to the auditorium, and a great bronze town seal on the façade of the building.

“Priscilla Pattison was commissioned to execute the sculpture “Tisbury Town Seal” for the pediment on the façade of the building,” the 1971 town report states. “The shield with its two barrels and its three codfish and TAKEMY (the [Native American] name for Tisbury) are taken from the Town Seal, and the flanking flourishes suggest waves and water that surround the Island.”

Some money is still left over from the gift Cornell gave. It’s kept in the Nancy Hamilton Fund, according to town accountant Suzanne Kennedy. Hamilton was Cornell’s “longtime companion,” according to the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project website. Kennedy said there is presently $31,688.62 in the Hamilton fund.

The Peter C. Cornell Trust has been exhausted, however, according to Kate Masiello of the Community Foundation of Greater Buffalo. Masiello was unable to provide any information on how much was spent through the fund on the renovation. She said her foundation took over the trust in 2011, and didn’t have access to prior records. Kennedy said she had no records going that far back. The remaining trustees “spent all their money down to zero” in making some “really important gifts” to the Western New York community this year, Masiello said. 

Masiello said Katharine Cornell’s dad, Peter, was a physician who later made a fortune in windshield wipers. 

She described him as a “really savvy businessman” who loved theater. 

Updated to correct a date. 



  1. This is a very sad story. Mr Grande do your job get these people into an annex. Build a new town hall. Where u say how about on the near the water company new facility. No need for a grand building. Maybe a one story modest situation. This new school project has got you and your people paralyzed. Come on man.

  2. Good luck with that, Town of Tisbury! If you want to see entire Island, and many prominent figures off-Island, from Bill Murray to the local yokels take you out, you picked the right fight. The lack of integrity of the Selectboard is stunning. Katherine Cornell Theater will live to see plenty more days as she wished.

  3. This is really shameful! There’s no reason this beautiful space should be used in this way! The murals by Stan Murphy alone are priceless and shouldn’t be endangered by the mess shown in the photos accompanying this article. I can’t tell you how many wonderful hours I’ve spent in this theater over the years. Town of Tisbury, try a little harder to find appropriate office space for your employees!

  4. What? The theater is still being used as office space for the town?
    Katherine Cornell’s legacy should be respected and the auditorium, the restoration of she generously funded, should be returned to the public as a venue for the performing arts! Cornell’s extraordinary contributions to the American theater and her love and support of the Vineyard should be celebrated rather than refurbished.

  5. Coincidentally, last week there was an astounding gathering of musicians and artists, via Facebook, discussing this situation, before any of the newspaper articles. Max Butler, an Emmy Award recipient chimed in, “we had some electrifying shows there”. Willy Mason, Nina Violet, Augie Esposito, Anthony Esposito, Tris Israel, Colin Ruel, Evan Dando, Greg Harcourt, Jemima James, Dan Waters, Marciana Jones, to name a few, inhabited the stage regularly. The groups from Focus also produced some wonderful shows. Friday Night Live was a regular monthly event. And the plays, Amahl and the Night Visitors, Nunsense, Fiddler on the Roof, Theives, One More River, Once upon a Mattress, to name a few, and none other than Lee Fiero directing. It is not right for the theater to be used for office space. The annex at high point already houses several departments, another building placed there would be more convenient for the people of Tisbury to do business.

  6. Very sad situation. Rent a space on Main Street for a permanent extension to town hall. This way it will be easy for people to walk, or bike to, including staff and it would benefit the town. No need to build another massive building.

  7. This is concerning on a variety of levels: 1) The more comfortable these town employees get in these beautiful surroundings they have taken over, the more difficult it will be for townspeople to remove them and reclaim the space for its intended purpose, 2) The fact that town employees took over this space so stealthily and without letting townspeople know of their intentions reflects their understanding that what they are doing is plain wrong, and 3) Just prior to Covid Vineyard Haven was officially designated by the State as a “Cultural District” and this decision by bureaucrats to claim this public performance space for themselves is a slap in the face to all those townsfolk who fought so hard to get this designation.

  8. I’ve seen some great plays there. I think the first was The Lion In Winter. This is really sad. How about the town using the Bowl and Board building on Main Street for office space instead? That’s been empty for years now.

  9. Upon reading this article I found myself speechless as how to respond other than
    “are you kidding me ???”. Upon reading the posted comments above I see I don’t have to dig
    too deep as my Tisbury neighbors have expressed their views rather articulately. The Kathryn Cornell should be available to the community period as it was intended, not just used as an office space. The disrespect for Kathryn Cornell and her wishes speaks for it’s self. I hope the town administrators get the message and this gets rectified. To many wonderful evenings at the Cornell and the thought of that not being a continued part of our town’s fabric is unacceptable. Let’s get this rectified so that those beautiful walls can reverberate with the good stuff once again. More piano keys, less computer keys, at least at the Cornell !!!

  10. There were so many educational and entertaining programs the Vineyard Haven Public Library was able to present at the Katharine Cornell. There were programs about history, science, art/music, literature and so much more. We miss being able to use this interesting space. In the winter it was cold, and in the summer often too hot, but we always knew we were at home on Martha’s Vineyard thanks to Mr. Murphy’s murals. I hope there will be a solution soon that returns the theater to its intended purpose.

  11. Funny that I just recently posted here that the take over of the Katherin Cornell Theater should be investigated. Did Ms Cornell leave instructions as to the renovation of the theater and was it for ever. It sounds as though any information has been conveniently not found.

    I Also brought up that the William St. Historical District Committee (WSHDC) was an overseer of this building. Were they notified that this takeover was permanent? Doesn’t the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC ) play into this to have a ruling?

    A new town hall is necessary, but with what members and friends of the Tisbury School Committee voted for has put us into debt at $83 million, plus, we’ll be unable to afford a new one any time soon. My suggestion is to think smart and try to negotiate the purchase of the rental class rooms now being used ($80 thousand a month), these or some of these, could be used as future offices on a different lot. — Anyone remember that the town passed up the opportunity to purchase the property on Pine St. abutting the fire station property — ?
    The town has missed so many opportunities wirh no long term town planning.
    Mr Crelan start your protest…. Get the MV Times to do a real investigative report on it. Call the Boston newspapers as well! How about a Boston news channel?

    • That $83 million price tag for the Tisbury school actually comes to $130 million when you include the cost of the loan. Yes, our kids are now saddled with a $130,000,000 debt that they will be forced to pay off over the next 30 years! For a terribly energy-wasteful school that will by unusable within days after a major blackout (no heating, cooling or ventilation). This is the most costly tragic mistake Tisbury will ever make!
      I spent the past 4 years warning Tisbury about this, and showing that we could have a much better school at half the cost, and ready in half the time.
      You can take a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink.

  12. It is outrageous that the Katharine Cornell Theatre has been taken over for offices.

    I am totally speechless at the chutzpah of this stunt.
    Every single commenter here and probably every resident of Tisbury can add pieces to the mosaic of wonderful theatrical, musical, and educational experiences and memories whose locus was the inspirational space of the “KC.” This was the intent of Katharine Cornell.

    A couple of memory fragments to add to the mosaic:

    ##Attending Island Theatre Workshop productions with any number of local “stars,” including Lee Fierro, the longtime co-president of ITW, In fact, I was in a couple of those. Just a few months ago there was a memorial service for Lee Fierro.

    ##Exchanging a smile with Jacqueline Onassis as she waited at the top of the steps for the doors to open for a show (after which, I heard, she went backstage to greet the players).

    This mosaic of memories is shattered if the theater’s purpose is alienated to mere office space by an administration that knows darn well it has no business arrogating to itself this space given by the great actress to the community. Basically this is no different from squatting on a property by just moving in and challenging the law to get rid of one. It is spitting in the eye of every citizen and certainly every taxpayer.

    Re Grande’s lofty announcements, such as ““Presently I don’t want the murals obstructed, because I like to be able to have people be able to view them,” Grande said. “I’d also like to have the venue restored, at least for small recitals …” —Who gave Grande the right to make these unilateral decisions for the whole town according to what he “wants” and “doesn’t want” and what he “would like”? IMO he is totally overstepping his brief.

    Every town employee should be embarrassed to look a citizen in the face after this stunt. This is totally unacceptable. The Town employees have no right to squat in this space. Grande can rent space somewhere else or follow the very sensible suggestion of Dana Hodsdon, above. The Planning Board has had offices on Highfield Lane for decades, and the rest of the town offices can do the same.

    The “KC” must be returned to its intended function immediately.

  13. This is appalling news. As a summer resident of West Tisbury, I have attended many performances (and movies) at the Katherine Cornell Theatre. I especially recall with pleasure the Irish music concerts and Stanley Nelson’s screening of his film about the Freedom Riders of the early 1960s. It’s a wonderful space for such events and an awful space for offices. Surely the town of Tisbury can find other space for needed offices.

  14. First, let’s get the lady’s name spelled correctly: Katharine. I have a lot of history on that stage, working with Mary Payne, Lee Fierro, Kaf Warman, Taffy McCarthy and many others. I’ve played in orchestras for musicals, rock bands, and if I were to list all the plays I was in on that stage (starting back in 1982), the paper would most likely edit it down. Not to mention stage managing and tech work on plays I wasn’t in. Community theater is community service—it builds community within the players and the audience that watches them. The Atlantic Connection stage gone, the Hot Tin Roof stage gone, don’t let this cherished performance space be lost. Katharine gave this island a wonderful gift for us to be able to entertain ourselves in that beautiful building, and I can feel my tears welling up at the thought of losing it. BTW, I visited Katharine’s grave site behind the building this summer, as I often did back in the day during intermissions. It needs some care and attention.

  15. Did they get a change of use permit for this takeover of an historic building that was willed to the town for a specific use ?
    Did they burn the will so there is no evidence ?
    Did they go through the historical committee about this ?
    I am appalled at this occupation, and I hope the occupiers are removed promptly.
    It’s called a theater for a reason, although it seems the town could use a theater to run its circus. Just not this one.

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