Breaking bricks, not legs, at theater

Riverhead Councilman John Dunleavy, Supervisor Sean Walter, Legislator Ed Romaine and Councilman Jim Wooten outside the downtown theater Monday to officially kick off the building’s renovation.

Work on the Suffolk Theatre restoration project officially began Monday with a ceremonial smashing of the bricks by Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter, in a variation on the traditional ribbon-cutting ceremony.

“This is one of the first steps in the renovation of downtown, and just as Rome wasn’t built in a day, neither will downtown Riverhead,” Mr. Walter said before taking a sledgehammer to a wall of bricks at the long-shuttered theater.

He added, “It is my goal to have the north side of Main Street 100 percent occupied by this time next year — and then we’ll start working on the south side.

Suffolk Theatre owner Bob Castaldi now has building permits to begin work on what will be the theater’s office and ticket booth, and said he plans to apply for permits to do the rest of the renovation project later this week.

“It’s probably going to take us a few months to do the office, and hopefully this week we’ll apply for the permits for rest of the building,” he said. “And once that’s issued, it should take somewhere between a year and a half to finish it, We’re starting from square one.”

Mr. Castaldi said financing for the job is in place, but that any state or federal grants that are available “will help us speed up the project.”

He said the theater is being renovated using energy efficient techniques such as geothermal heating and cooling and solar electricity. A geothermal unit arrived at the site Monday

“What we do is we pump 54 degree water out of the ground, put it through a geothermal unit and use that to heat and cool the building,” said Jim McErlean of W. Warner HVAC Systems in Riverhead, which is working on the theater. “It should save the theater between 60 and 65 percent of operational costs.”

An array of photovoltaic panels will be placed on the roof of the building for use in producing electricity and hot water, said project architect Rick Stott of Flynn Stott Architects in Southampton.

Mr. Castaldi purchased the 77-year-old art deco style theater from Riverhead Town in 2005 for $707,000, but the restoration stalled and he became involved in litigation with the town in 2007. That litigation was settled earlier this year, when newly elected Town Board members said they had no interest in re-acquiring the theater through a reverter clause in the contract. That clause allowed the town to retake ownership of the building if work wasn’t substantially completed within three years of the sale, which it was not.

Mr. Castaldi plans to reopen the theater as a performing arts center and single-screen theater that would also do “dinner theater” performances, with tables replacing the seats.

The Suffolk Theatre hasn’t been used as a movie theater since 1987. The town acquired it in 1994 but was never able to reopen it.

“This is long overdue and we’re really happy to see it finally happening,” said Bob Lanieri, president of the Riverhead Chamber of Commerce. “Our goal is to bring strollers back to downtown Riverhead and this is certainly going to help with that.”

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