New life for Canandaigua’s Fort Hill auditorium

Mike Murphy, Staff Writer
Daily Messenger / 

“Members of the Fort Hill Performing Arts Center are trying to help bring the arts to a local stage

CANANDAIGUA — Gordon Estey’s career in theater started at the old Canandaigua Academy and Junior Academy auditorium where the Fort Hill Apartments now stand.

In fact, Estey, a semi-retired theater manager at the Canandaigua Academy, said a member of the board of directors of a group looking to refurbish the auditorium and stage local performing arts events there met her husband on that very stage while performing in a musical.

“There is a connection there,” Estey said.

And Estey and others are looking to build new ones.

Backers of a plan to refurbish the auditorium soon will be kicking off a fundraising campaign in the hope of raising up to $2 million to help building owner and manager Conifer Realty LLC with the project.

Since receiving a conditional use permit from the City Planning Commission for the project in late 2014, several Canandaigua residents and theater buffs have been working behind the scenes to make the curtains rise on the project.

When done, the new-look auditorium will serve as an anchor location for the performing arts, whether it’s community theater productions, open mic nights, poetry readings, music and dance recitals, or concerts, according to Holger Stave, executive director of the not-for-profit Fort Hill Performing Arts Center.

“This facility will be a lot more affordable and open to anybody who wants to put something on here,” Stave said. “We’re always going to give community-based groups and functions the priority.”

Changes are afoot.

The auditorium sat over 750 people in its heyday, but the plan is to reduce seating to about 500. The old balcony cannot be used as it once was, but the plan is to reopen loge boxes, Stave said.

The lighting and rigging systems will be redone for a fully equipped stage.

The main entry lobby also see a major makeover. So when Stave looks at the entrance to the apartments now, he’s really foreseeing the glitz and glamor of opening night.

“When you walk into the front doors, it will really be mind-blowing,” Stave said.

The main lobby area also will include space for meetings, catered and corporate functions, art shows and exhibits. A lower level will have studio space, offices and sound-isolated rooms for teaching.

Remarkably, the auditorium has held up well over the years, Estey said.

“It has some great bones,” Estey said. “It’s really, really sharp. This will make a really charming theater.”

The hope is for the facility to be a community center for the whole region, Estey said. Now, there just isn’t enough space around to do what the group wants to see happen.

High school stages, including Canandaigua Academy and Finger Lakes Community College’s new stage, are booked solid, Estey said.

For Stave, the interest in the project came from his role as president of the Finger Lakes Symphony Orchestra, which always seems to be looking for a home.

“Now the hard work starts — looking for the money to get it done,” Stave said. “We’re trying to create a little frenzy here.”

The plan

Here’s how the Fort Hill Performing Arts Center is envisioned to work.

Members will be reaching out to regional organizations interested in using the venue either on a regular or rotating basis. Users may reserve space for recurring productions or rehearsals or book occasional events.

The operation will be managed by the organization’s board of directors and an on-site executive director. Volunteers also will be recruited and trained professionally to assist in the aspects of running the facility.

For more information, visit”