History of the Hangar Theatre Building

The story of our theatre’s unusual home begins in 1912, when the Ithaca Municipal Airport   opened with a single hangar and airstrip in what is today’s Cass Park. The site was ideal for testing the airplanes being produced by Ithaca’s then-bustling aviation business, including the Thomas-Morse Aircraft Corporation’s famous WWI plane, “Tommy.”

During the Depression, a Civil Works Administration project expanded the airport with asphalt runways and a two-story glass, steel, and cinder-block hangar—the foundation of today’s theatre. Huge crowds attended the September 17, 1934 opening, celebrated with fireworks and parachute jumps.

WWII was the municipal airport’s busiest era, when over 4,000 pilots trained here. But as commercial aviation grew, it required longer runways. When Cornell opened an airport on the East Hill in 1948, use of the lakeside facility gradually decreased until it closed in July 1966.  The hangar then languished, used for storage of City equipment.

In 1964, citizens formed the Center for the Arts at Ithaca (CAI) to build a performing arts center in Cass Park. When plans were scaled back in 1969, the CAI agreed to a concept proposed by William Carpenter called the “Hangar Playfair,” a mix of improv and traditional theatre in and around the hangar. Despite strenuous efforts to meet City safety standards and perform in 1969-1970, the Playfair idea failed to catch on.

The crucial step that transformed the hangar into a real theatre came in 1973, when CAI chair Tom Niederkorn wrote to then-Governor Nelson Rockefeller requesting that the $100,000 he had personally donated for a performing arts center be released to renovate the hangar. His positive answer encouraged other donors. In 1974 architect Robert Mueller drew plans which featured a thrust stage, open to the audience on three sides.

Construction by builder Raymond McElwee started in spring 1975, and the Hangar Theatre had its inaugural performance on July 11. In 1988 a costume and set shop was built next to the main building. But the Hangar remained un-winterized, and required frequent repairs. Finally, thanks to strong community support, the successful “Hangar for All Seasons” capital campaign raised $4 million for a complete renovation in 2010, creating a year-round performance venue.

We celebrate our building’s aeronautical past in many ways, from the name of our volunteer corps, PROPS, to the photo of Amelia Earhart in the theatre’s lobby. The Hangar’s logo features a red flag, the international navigational symbol for the letter “B” or “Bravo,” echoing the cries   of delighted theatre audiences.

Located on a flood plain, the former airport site has always faced flood threats. Much has been done to diminish the chance of water damage to today’s Hangar building. But as the frequency and severity of storms increase, we are seeking new ways to guard against them, so that the Hangar Theatre can continue to serve as a place where imagination and spirits take flight.