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Riverside Renaissance

Basilica Hudson, the 100-year-old factory-turned-performing-arts space, has become the hub of a community and an icon of Hudson’s cultural transformation

by Ali Hibbs on October 13, 2011 · 2 comments

Will Oldham leans against the sliding wood doors of a 19th-century Hudson Valley factory as if posing for the cover of his next Bonnie “Prince” Billy record. A gathering of bystanders overflows from the building’s North Hall and into the April evening mostly unaware. He shuffles a stack of papers and enters the room on-cue, assuming his position at a microphone next to septuagenarian author and longtime Hudson resident Rudy Wurlitzer. For the next hour or so, the two read passages from Wurlitzer’s 1984 novel Slow Fade while guitarist Ben Chasny (of Six Organs of Admittance and Comets on Fire) provides accompaniment, and photos taken by Wurlitzer’s wife Lynn Davis are projected on a screen overhead.

Melissa Auf der Maur at Basilica Hudson. Photo by Julia Zave.

“We were so excited when Will Oldham agreed to do that book tour through Hudson,” says Melissa Auf der Maur, a musician of Hole and Smashing Pumpkins fame, as well as the owner of Basilica Hudson, the 10,000 square-foot former glue factory that she and filmmaker partner Tony Stone have been converting into the region’s largest performing arts and gathering space. “We felt like [the venue’s opening event] was a perfect example of what we hoped to bring: a local author and a big music name. It was intimate and it was nontraditional.” Last weekend, the seasonal venue ended its inaugural year under Auf der Maur and Stone’s stewardship, but already the industrial space is becoming an icon of the cultural transformation Hudson is rapidly undergoing. “Rudy Wurlitzer and Lynn Davis are real pioneers in the first wave of people who moved to Hudson and saw that it could be the utopia that it is. There’s a hard-working community and beautiful architecture. So much potential.”

Auf der Maur and Stone moved to Hudson four years ago from Montreal and New York City, respectively, in search of a lower cost of living that would support their freelance livelihood. Stone, whose film work includes Severed Ways: The Norse Discovery of America, had attended Bard College in the ’90s and was already familiar with the region; it didn’t take Auf der Maur long to catch the “Hudson bug” like so many who have relocated to the town in the past 10 to 15 years.

“It really started to shape us,” Auf der Maur says, “even though we came already equipped with our projects and plans. We were looking for a community like this to participate in and I didn’t realize until we got here just how much of a community we were getting into and how entrenched we would be.” The two had no explicit intentions of opening a venue, but Hudson’s tight-knit community quickly introduced them to Patrick Doyle, who had owned the building (known then as Basilica Industria) for a decade with plans to make it a gathering space. “We could see it from our house, so I would sit and dream of the amazing festivals we could help curate,” she says.

Then last year Doyle decided to make a move out of state and started looking to sell the place. “We got a sort of protective feeling that we didn’t want that thing to fall into the wrong hands,” Auf der Maur says. “It’s the largest gathering spot in Hudson, up to 1,500 capacity. And that’s a powerful thing, whether it’s for a political fundraiser or a farm expo or a concert. If you have a space, and a beautiful space at that, that’s a very important thing for a community.”

Because Auf der Maur and Stone shared Doyle’s vision, he made an offer they couldn’t refuse and last fall the couple found themselves with a hundred-year-old factory with no plumbing on their hands.

During their first season, Auf der Maur, Stone, and his parents Bill and Nancy Stone undertook the process of renovating the building while curating a modest schedule of events. “We’ve really had to devote ourselves in the past year to get this thing off the ground,” Auf der Maur says. “Luckily, Tony is very handy so he, his father, and a couple friends took on the epic few months of digging up the ground and bringing in the bathrooms.” Careful to maintain the building’s historic character, they were able to find architecturally appropriate fixtures and fittings from area salvage shops to complement the original raw steel trusses and terracotta ceiling tiles. Having brought the building up to code, the two envision years of further renovations on the horizon, including an eventual transition to solar power.

Meanwhile, the two are spending as much time on the venue’s programming as on the building itself. “It’s really important that it’s diverse,” says Auf der Maur. “There’s got to be as much local as there is international . . . very evenly split between film and visual art, music, performance, theater, modern dance, literary.”

The past season reflected this. In July, the Basilica played host to a 30-artist show sponsored by the New Art Dealers Alliance (NADA). The venue’s most successful event thus far, the show brought 3,000 people through the space, selling out every Amtrak train to Hudson that weekend as well as every local hotel and bed and breakfast. “People were moving out of their apartments for the weekend to rent them,” she says. “No one’s seen that many people come through Hudson . . . ever.”

Then, in August, a chance meeting with some local laser aficionados led to the venue’s largest musical event in conjunction with the Hudson Music Fest. The night started with experimental pop duo Buke and Gass and Lungfish’s Daniel Higgs, culminating in a full-blown rave with JD Samson and DJ BDG (of Gang Gang Dance). “Majestic” is the way Auf der Maur describes the venue’s big room when full of fog and lasers. “What’s exciting about the building is it has all these different capacities that can happen separately or all in one event. There can be an intimate theater performance, an art show and a rave all going on essentially in one event. It’s so conducive to every type of entertainment.”

But entertainment isn’t the only goal for the space. When it’s fully operational, the idea is to use it as a multimedia work space for ongoing projects not just finished works. “You can build sets or make an ice rink,” Auf der Maur says. “We want to use it to its maximum capacity.” That means renting the space for public and private functions as well. It’s been the site of galas, fundraisers, even a few weddings. In September, the Columbia County Chamber of Commerce used Basilica Hudson as the venue for its Local Business Expo. “[The Chamber is] really recognizing that some of the strongest growing businesses around are local farms, manufacturing, etc. In a small town like Hudson, everyone needs to be educated about why it is important to shop local. They want to use us as a symbol of a local organization that is trying to move things forward.”

For better of worse, Basilica Hudson has become the icon of this transition. In August, the New York Times ran a piece exploring the “Brooklynization of the Hudson Valley,” chalking up the exurban revival of riverfront towns like Hudson as an extension of the “steady hipness creep” into locavore lifestyles—that is, just another gentrification story. Auf der Maur and the Basilica were named “as good a snapshot as any.”

But Auf der Maur takes serious issue with this kind of framing. “[Hudson] was basically a ghost town for decades after industry left,” she says. “Drugs, sex and gambling were almost the only livelihood. But I think the future of America is in these small communities. When you’re in a smaller community you can actually make a difference, and I think that’s a big part of what the Basilica represents and what Hudson represents, and therefore a lot of the communities in the Hudson Valley are about hard-working, thinking individuals who want to see progress in a country that has unfortunately gone through a couple of slumps.”

The sentiment is not new. In 2003, punk rock icon Patti Smith appeared at a Basilica Industria fundraiser to block the proposed construction of a cement plant. Lamenting that New York City has “closed itself off to the young and the struggling,” she pointed to towns like Hudson as the new frontier for artistic and cultural growth. The effort was successful, a fact that remains divisive in a town where a third of residents live below the poverty line while high-end restaurants and antique shops spring up along Warren Street. It’s easy for those who would have benefitted from jobs at the cement plant to begrudge what newcomers view as a renaissance.

For Auf der Maur, though, the change isn’t just about art and a lower cost of living, it’s about quality of life regardless of socioeconomic status. “The biggest reason that cement plant was in fact rejected was that it would have totally deteriorated the quality of life for people,” she says, regardless of the jobs it would have created. “Even in the heyday of steelworkers, there were really bad health problems. I think what we all know is that the industrial revolution that happened at the turn of the last century was a very different beast than it is now. We are now dealing with multinational conglomerate corporations. It’s very rare that you get a company like that to actually help a small community.”

Abandoning the false hope of a return to the town’s industrial past, she says, was the first step toward bringing Hudson new life. And it isn’t just the art set that are moving in. “I see people who have moved here to start small welding companies or alternative fuel companies,” she says, “And they’re actually paying lots of tax dollars, helping rebuild a small house, getting active in the local community radio station or a CSA.”

In the building next door to the Basilica, a young welder and a biodiesel mechanic from Ohio have both started new small businesses. The former LB Furniture Industries shed a couple hundred jobs when it went out of business a few years back. Now, in the same space, a startup industrial design company called Digifab has added 15 new jobs in the last year, contracting work with clients like Chipotle. As both a practical move and symbolic gesture, the North Hall of Basilica Hudson, the space used for the opening event with Wurlitzer and Oldham, is filled with eclectically mismatched seats from LB’s liquidation sale.

“These industrial buildings represent a beacon of hope from 100 years ago,” Auf der Maur says. “We are bringing life, activity and work back into these buildings that would otherwise fall down. They’re historical documents of what made this country incredible. We’re so screwed with this corporate greed and this political absolute lawlessness, you feel like you can’t do anything. But in a smaller place you can, on a smaller level. That’s really satisfying to people who have entered the 21st century concerned that we can make a difference. We’re the ones really embracing the vision of hard-working America.”