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Preservation project is a labor of love

Progress, when it comes to the restoration of historic structures, is a tough pill for the skeptical public to swallow. One time I heard someone say, I hope with tongue-in-cheek, "restorations just make the buildings look old, like nothing has changed." He also remarked that the time it takes to complete a project seems to equal the age of the building.

Recently, the president of our local preservation project, the Historic Gowanda Hollywood Theater, invited me to join the board. I already knew quite a bit about this wonderful old palace, having researched its history for a recently published story in Western New York Heritage magazine.

I might also add that I took my first date to a movie there and, no, it was not a silent film!

What I didn't know was the answer to the question that many people in our community seem to be asking: When would this latest attempt at restoration, now in its seventh year, finally be finished?

When I walked into the theater lobby to attend my first meeting, I was struck by the fact that little had changed from the last time I was inside just over a year ago. Tables, tools, boards, construction materials, debris, scaffolding and ladders were strewn everywhere. The seatless cavern -- cold, damp and dimly lit -- was just a shadow of the once-magnificent former showplace I had written about.

"Well," I thought, "it looks like this place will never be done."

The skeptic in me tallied the imagined stacks of money raised in past summertime events and recalled the announcement of a grant award. I, too, began to wonder where all the money had gone.

"I can understand why many people complain about preservation projects," I said under my breath. "They're money pits!"

Mark Burr, president of the theater board and a Cattaraugus County engineer by trade, began to explain the renovations. Within minutes, I developed a keen appreciation of his engineer's eye as he explained to me the painstaking attention to detail that historic preservation demands. Every swatch of color, every exposed radiator, every fabric-covered seat and every trowel of plaster must be matched to the exacting standards of the historic record of materials used the year the structure was constructed in order to qualify for these hotly contested grants. Nothing can be substituted, overlooked or left to chance.

Only behind the walls can the infrastructure be up-to-date and this, too, must pass rigid codes.

On both accounts, the Hollywood project was certainly moving forward. With my eyes now opened to see the forest through the trees I could understand the process that restoration requires.

I quickly felt a twinge of guilt for ever doubting those who have undertaken this massive project.

My newfound understanding grew as I sat down with the other people who serve on the board. A couple of bankers, a doctor, the engineer, a plant manager, heavy-equipment operators, a student, a few retirees and others of equally diverse backgrounds made up the mix. Each is willing to share talents and all are committed to the effort required to give this jewel back in pristine condition, just like the day it was first presented to the Gowanda community in 1926.

I heard remarkable stories about seats being located in a convent in Allegany, and how a mighty Wurlitzer organ has been secured from the New York State Museum in Albany.

Money and patience are found if dedicated people put forth the effort. I'm honored to be asked to be one of them.

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Stephen Cocca, of Gowanda, has a new appreciation for what it takes to restore a historic building.