The first step of the renovation of the Sampson Theatre has been achieved, at last. After months of fundraising, historical research, design, architectural archeology, and construction, the new doors of the theatre were installed last week.

“It’s the best birthday present I ever got,” said Dean Knapton as the installation was being completed last Friday, Feb. 1. Nor could it be a more appropriate gift. Knapton is the central figure both behind and leading the efforts to bring the Sampson back to life as a performing arts center for Yates County, and has devoted years of his life to achieving that civic goal.

Recently recovered from knee replacement, Knapton himself built an enclosure at the front of the Sampson on East Elm St. and brought in space heaters so the crew from Rochester Colonial would be able to work on the two coldest days of winter so far. But prior to this, Knapton was by far the leader in all the dollars raised for the phased project. With raffles and events, and stage construction for Penn Yan Theatre Company Shows, his efforts are now represented by the new Sampson doors.

Designed by architect Richard Osgood of Bero Architecture in Rochester (but a Penn Yan native) the doors are as close as possible in appearance and construction to what was built in 1910 when the new Vaudeville house first opened for the audiences of Penn Yan. In its later use as a car dealership and tire warehouse, the originals were demolished for a rolling metal overhead door. Now remade of solid mahogany with bronze fixtures, the Sampson’s doors are meant to last for the life of the theatre.

Drawing on the knowledge of historical paint expert Linda Carter Lefko, Osgood and she climbed to the upper stories of the Sampson to examine the original window sashes. Scraping back over 100 years of other colors, road grime, dust, and soot, and then carefully matching multiple samples, they arrived at what they are confident is the original dark teal blue that was chosen by Dr. Sampson himself.

Partially funded by the Façade Improvement Program with the Village of Penn Yan, the new doors are just the first step in the first phase of the reawakening of the Sampson. Restoration of the top of the façade wall, repointing of brickwork, and some repair to the poured concrete that placed it on the National register of Historic Places, and window and other door replacements will complete the first phase. 

Construction of the annex beside the Sampson will allow for all the required facilities for safety and accessibility that the original builders never had to worry about. Housing the new lobby and fully accessible bathrooms, the annex will make it possible to finally host public events in the Sampson once more. And those events in the unrestored Sampson will help fund the efforts to complete the cosmetic renovation of the theatre itself and improve its technology, much like the way Geneva’s Smith Opera House was brought back to life. The annex will also have the rentable studio space that will add income to support the building’s maintenance.

The Sampson is the largest applicant for grant funds from the recently awarded N.Y.S. Downtown Revitalization Initiative. As a non-profit, it qualifies for a higher percentage of funding, with none of those funds lost to federal or state taxation. Once complete, the Sampson will be used in an existing agreement with Keuka College for their performing arts program. And with its stage capacity, the Sampson will be able to attract and host larger touring companies than either the Smith or the Clemens Center in Elmira, where many people in the Finger Lakes go to see professional shows.

At the last DRI meeting, members of the Local Planning Committee, including Steve Griffin of the Finger Lakes Economic Development Center, and numerous members of the public, including other grant applicants, urged state consultant Ed Flynn to re-evaluate the importance of the Sampson Theatre as a pivotal and transformative element in the revitalization of downtown Penn Yan.