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Eastman Museum reveals ambitious renovation plans

Jan 6, 2020

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As a longtime Rochester resident facing a roomful of city and county movers and shakers, Thomas Tischer alluded to the piles of architectural renderings whose promise never sees the light of day.

"Beyond plans," he said, sitting in the Dryden Theater on Monday morning, "you want reality."

And with that, ambitious plans were unveiled for the George Eastman Museum and its attendant Dryden Theatre. A shimmering glass entryway, a new visitors center, gift shop and café. Repairs to structures in the gardens. Even the restoration of the windows in what had been the stable where Eastman kept his horses. That room, known as the Curtis Theatre until now, will become an education room and meeting hall. Eastman's horses could never have imagined the new technology that will, with the flip of a switch, screen out the light from those windows when the room is in use.

The plans are unfolding into reality after last summer's $1 million purchase of the naming rights to the visitors center's pavilion by ESL Federal Credit Union, and $1 million from the New York State Council on the Arts, working with the Finger Lakes Regional Economic Development Council. And another $1.5 million from Tischer.

"You may wonder," Tischer said, "who is this person?"

Indeed. Tischer moved here in 1961 to work as a research chemist for the Eastman Kodak Company. A longtime Greece resident, he retired in 1992, but kept his hand in photography by supporting a handful of the museum's initiatives, including the long-running "Wish You Were Here" photography lecture series. He is joined by a handful of other private and corporate sponsors of these Eastman Museum improvements.

Bruce Barnes recalled a conversation with Tischer in the museum's café, during the fall of 2012, just after Barnes had taken over as the museum's director. Tischer was pushing for a more welcoming entry to the museum than the door that is a long walk from the parking lot. Especially, as Barnes wryly noted, considering Rochester's "occasionally inclement weather."

"This is a great example of a public/private collaboration," said Monroe County Executive Adam Bello. 

"We all know that these projects take a village," said Mara Manus, executive director of the New York State Council on the Arts.

Rochester Deputy Mayor James Smith called such "secret sauce" collaborations one of the keys to "bringing in brilliant minds" from places such as Tischer's native Wisconsin. Referring to the vast history of photography here, Smith called the Eastman Museum "an homage to all of the men and women in this community who made these pictures happen."

The swarm of community leaders also included state Sen. Joe Robach, Assemblyman Harry Bronson and Don Jeffries, president and CEO of Visit Rochester.

The new glass and steel entryway -- to be called the ESL Federal Credit Union Pavilion -- will preserve the outside facade of what was once George Eastman's garage. This construction, as well as ongoing renovations to the colonnade and the glass windows overlooking the gardens, will affect the George Eastman Museum's hours. 

The museum will remain closed through Jan. 30. The mansion itself is also closed, reopening on Feb. 14 for the Dutch Connection floral show. The Dryden Theatre and café will be closed through June 3, reopening for the Nitrate Picture Show festival.

Future fundraising, Barnes said, could address plans such as an 18-by-60-foot outdoor screen that would accommodate the Kodak Colorama photos once displayed in New York City's Grand Central Terminal.

Jeff Spevak is WXXI's Arts & Life editor and reporter. He can be reached at jspevak@wxxi.org.