OLEAN — One long-time group in the city hopes to pass their home to another this year.
Officials at the Temple B’nai Israel reported that the congregation plans to sell the circa 1929 structure to Olean Community Theatre. Congregation co-president Dr. David Shulman and OCT board member Ben Hollamby confirmed the plans this past week, hoping to make the transaction later this year.
The word of the sale first leaked out when the groups petitioned the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals for a use variance for the site in late June. The ZBA has not ruled on the request. A public hearing has been set for 5:35 p.m. Thursday in the Council Chambers of the Olean Municipal Building, according to a legal notice first published July 1.
“This is literally like three weeks old,” Hollamby said, with many steps before the sale can be finalized.
Hollamby said the group originally planned to make the announcement at Friday’s performance of “Titanic the Musical,” and will offer attendees a chance to learn more about the proposed purchase and ask board members questions after the show. The show will start at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the Portville Central School auditorium.
At its height, around 70 families were members of the city’s Jewish congregation, but the membership has declined since the middle of the 20th century, Shulman said.
“There’s not enough of us left to support a big building,” he said, adding an average Friday service now may see five or six attendees — and even important holidays have seen small gatherings. “For the past several years we’ve been planning on becoming smaller and smaller.”
When the theatre group approached the congregation after seeing the building listed for sale, it wasn’t a difficult decision, he added.
“We thought, ‘actually, it is a really good idea — it’s a local organization and it’s been around a long time,’” Shulman said, with the congregation voting in favor of the sale.
It’s a huge step for the theatre group, which celebrates its 40th year this season.
“They’ve never had a home for 40 years,” Hollamby said. “This has been 40 years in the making.”
“The right property really never came along,” he said, with the right mix of central location, performance space, storage capability and charm.
The temple hits all of those notes — a historic structure a short walk through Lincoln Park from the State and Union intersection with plenty of room and a setup already conducive to putting on a theatrical performance.
“I can’t think of a better use for that building,” he said. “There is nothing negative about this — the community is going to win as a whole.
“Because of that building, there’s going to be a lot more possibilities for us,” he said.
While there are obvious uses that spring to mind — a performance space for smaller productions — there are many other opportunities offered by such a space.
“It’s always a pain to find places to rehearse,” Hollamby said, as host sites for larger productions like the Olean High School auditorium or Cutco Theatre often have other scheduled events or restrictions that can limit when rehearsals can be held.
In addition, the storage of costumes and props has been a long-time woe for the group, with the basement a perfect place for getting everything in one spot, he said.
And the basement also has a full kitchen and even performance space.
“We’ll have the potential to do a dinner theater,” he said, which could bring in revenue for the organization.
TAKING OVER the stewardship of a historic structure isn’t something OCT officials take lightly.
“We’re trying to do that as minimally invasive as possible,” he said, with only a few external changes like a handicapped-accessible ramp necessary. “There will be some changes, but nothing major — it just needs to be modified for our needs.
“It’s going to be done the right way.”
The biggest hurdles include zoning and paying for such a project, Hollamby said.
“There are always other hurdles, and there will be a cost,” he said.
The zoning issue, which both groups hope to get sorted out, comes from the synagogue’s location at the edge of a Residential 3 use district, which restricts the placement of theaters. However, properties across Barry Street and just a few parcels to the north are in the City Center use district, which allows for theaters.
Hollamby said that fundraising efforts will also be launched to help cover the cost of purchase and renovation, including sound and lighting equipment for productions.
But only a short way into the planning process, he feels optimistic.
“This is just a fantastic thing for the community,” he said.
The transfer isn’t expected until at least the fall, with Shulman noting the congregation plans to stay in its present quarters through the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.
Olean’s Jewish congregation dates back to 1882, when the Olean Social Club was founded. Over the next 14 years, the group grew in size and changed names three times. In 1895, the first rabbi came to the congregation. Housed in various rented structures — and even city hall for a time — the congregation made plans for a house of worship of their own. The plans were shelved during World War I, but revived after the conflict. The synagogue was designed by Wellsville’s J. Milton Hurd, architect of Bradner Stadium and other projects across the region. The structure was built in 1929, with the congregation moving the sacred Torah to the site shortly thereafter. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2012.
Now, the congregation will likely look into renting space for their services — much like it did for decades before the temple was built.
“It would be interesting to see if we could rent some space,” from OCT, Shulman joked.