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DIANE MAKAR MURPHY Theater at Scottish Cathedral is a rite to remember



Published: Tue, September 18, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



John, my husband, is the scene and lighting designer for Youngstown State University's theater department, so when a student told him he HAD to see a "huge stage" in New Castle, he really HAD to see a huge stage in New Castle.

The Scottish Rite Cathedral looks massive on the hill above Mill Street. Up close, it reminds you of buildings in Washington, D.C. A dozen concrete steps lead up to a large terrace upon which rest seven large pillars embedded in the building's frontispiece. Eight double doors with huge arched Palladian windows offer entry. (We soon learned the building materials were brought up from the river on horse-drawn wagons.)

The building was designed in the early '20s and constructed by R.G. Schmid Co. between 1924 and 1926. It's 245 feet wide, 181 feet deep and 110 feet high. The original construction cost was $1.7 million.

"It was originally a Masonic temple," explained Dawn Ayers, coordinator of the Cathedral Foundation, which is now responsible for the cathedral. "A gentleman named John Wallace, who was a Mason, lived next door. [The Masons are] a brotherhood whose goal is to help people. Wallace wanted a place commissioned to get scattered meeting places all into one spot."

Facing loss: By 1940, however, the building was about to be lost to taxes. The Masons, Ayers said, organized the Cathedral Foundation to take over the facility. It gained nonprofit status in just the last few years, she said. "The Masons really support it. They donate time and skills and energy," Ayers said. The 12-man board of directors is Masonic.

The Masons continue to have events in the cathedral, paying rent on a yearly basis. In addition, the building survives on rental of its ballroom (straight out of Titanic -- "so beautiful on its own, you don't have to do much to decorate"), meeting rooms, and lobby, and fund drives. Surprisingly, bingo brings in the most money.

And then, there is the stage -- the one John drove to Pennsylvania to see.

The decor: Out in the lobby, three huge stained-glass chandeliers with pendant prisms are poised above polished floors, smooth and dappled with various stones. These are terrazo floors, John says. He tells me how they are made (and then he tells Dawn).

Red leather chairs and benches sit below a balcony and before some 17 marble-look columns, some of which have candelabra sconces. A life-size portrait of John Wallace looks toward the four double glass doors that lead to the theater.

Finally. It is dark inside, but the smell of leather, emanating from the 2,800-seat house, is strong. There are two balconies. Backstage is a 60-year-old dimmer board used to operate the lights -- recently for a sold out Pittsburgh Symphony concert. It covers a wall. John points out today's dimmer boards can fit on one's lap.

"A local dance company uses it. New Castle high school has commencements here," Ayers said. Some celebrities performed on the stage on "their way up" -- like Charlie Pride and Reba McEntire. On November 10, the Pittsburgh Symphony will return.

Old organ: John pointed downstage. "It's an old Mueller organ," Ayers said. "One of only two in the country. It's still in use."

"And its pipes?" John asked.

"I'm told they're hidden all over the building."

That's only one interesting thing about the cathedral. Another is that, up until 1998, it was completely heated by coal with two boilers needing to be fed and stoked. Almost $200,000 went into replacing one; another $200,000 is going into kitchen renovations.

Ayers said the Cathedral Foundation considers itself a community resource. "Some people think of us as a rental facility," she said, pointing out that reunions, weddings, and parties are scheduled into 2003. But she would like to see more use of that amazing stage.

murphy@vindy.com




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