A former trustee of the trust that provided funding for the 1970s revamp of the second floor of Tisbury’s town hall into what is now known as the Katharine Cornell Memorial Theater isn’t enthused by the incursion of office spaces into the theater’s auditorium. Stephen Cornell, a relative of theater giant Katharine Cornell, and her godson, said that upon reading a Times article on a change of use for the auditorium, he was moved to write a complaint letter to the select board. That letter is also being published in The Times.
“I wrote the letter simply because I was taken aback,” Cornell said in a telephone interview. “I thought, Wait a minute; that beautiful theater that I saw, that beautiful space, is going to be filled with people just running town business? That somehow seems an odd response. I sympathize with staff having to work in cramped spaces. I’ve been there myself and done that. But somehow this seems to me a mistaken response, and one that sort of says, ‘Yeah, well, but our administrative comfort is more important than what this venue can contribute to the life of the community,’ and that, to me, just seems to be a mistake.”
As The Times previously reported, some town hall staffers already call the Cornell auditorium their office space, and others are anticipated to migrate into that auditorium from the ground floor of the building.
Stephen Cornell, an emeritus professor at the University of Arizona and a former trustee of the Peter C. Cornell charitable trust, said Katharine Cornell was his father’s cousin. “She and my father were cousins, and of like generation,” Stephen Cornell said. “And my parents asked her to be my godmother, and so my childhood was full of stories of Katharine Cornell. My father knew her very well.”
He said he didn’t know Katharine Cornell as deeply, though he did visit her once in Vineyard Haven around the time he was in high school, and had seen her perform once in Washington, D.C. “To me, being a kid at the time, she was sort of a grand dame,” he said.
Katharine Cornell’s father, he said, in addition to being a successful businessman, loved and aided the theater community in Buffalo, N.Y., where he lived. When her father passed away in the 1940s, he left behind a trust, and Stephen Cornell’s dad and uncle, along with Katharine Cornell, became the original trustees.
“It was a charitable trust with a primary focus on Western New York, the city of Buffalo and that area,” Stephen Cornell said. “But the trustees sometimes made charitable contributions to organizations outside that region. So she was in a position to benefit the town of Tisbury through the trust if she could persuade the other trustees that that would be something good to do for the town of Tisbury.”
Stephen Cornell said he had no idea what discussions the trustees had ahead of the Tisbury gift. “I only know really what my father told me, which was that the trust had given, at her urging, a significant amount of money to support a cultural venue there,” he said.
Stephen Cornell said he visits the Vineyard from time to time because he has friends in West Tisbury. He was last in the auditorium seven or eight years ago.
“I have never had any exact knowledge of the terms of the grant … I’ve never seen the documents,” he said. “But I’ve always assumed that that sort of thing often is given to establish something, without much thought about what will be required to maintain it.”
When asked if he thought his godmother ever expected it to be municipal office space, he said, “I can’t imagine that in her original conception that she anticipated anything like that.”
“She was a woman of the theater. She loved Martha’s Vineyard,” Cornell went on to say. “I think she wanted some way of contributing to the community that really would represent, in some sense, what she felt was valuable. And to me, the idea of supporting some kind of cultural venue, whether it’s for theatricals or for other cultural events for the community, that would have resonated with her.”
He continued to press that idea home. “I would be very surprised if she ever anticipated that kind of use for that property. I can’t imagine that it wasn’t her intention that that space continue to be used for the pleasure and cultural enjoyment of the community. I think if she wanted to support the administrative offices of town government, she would have done that. But I doubt that even occurred to her.”
Stephen Cornell said he doesn’t expect to hear from the select board regarding his letter. Though the funds of the Peter C. Cornell trust were recently distributed in what was a final charitable disbursement, he said he’s still in touch with the other trustees, and will confer with them on the auditorium issue.
“I’ve got my fingers crossed that maybe the select board will come up with some other alternative to changing the mission of that [space] and the purpose of her gift, but I realize these are tough times for most levels of government,” he said. “Fingers crossed.”
Tisbury town administrator Jay Grande told The Times on Wednesday that several remedies are on the table, including sharing the space and seeking other places to accommodate office spillover. Grande said it may be possible to temporarily rent space atop the EduComp building on State Road. Once the Tisbury School project is completed, he said, one of the modular units used for the temporary school could be purchased to accommodate town hall workers. In February, Grande said he expects a town hall building committee will be assembled. No decisions about the auditorium will be made until the Jan. 25 select board meeting, he said. At that time, following a special election, there will be a full board to weigh in on the matter.