George and Carol Dunnigan weren’t convinced that their piece of property on Main Street in Hudson Falls was going to work, but a few obstacles and a little bit of hard work weren’t about to deter Jonathan Newell.
A 1982 Hudson Falls High School graduate, a concert pianist, a guitarist in his own rock ’n’ roll group — the Jonathan Newell Band — and a longtime music professor at Adirondack Community College, Newell has overseen the transformation of the 1872 Hudson Falls Courthouse into what is called today the Hudson River Music Hall.
While the Dunnigans have owned the two-story brick structure for 13 years, it wasn’t until the fall of 2010 when Newell got involved that things really started happening.
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“We had our first cleanup day in November, our first concert on December 19, and we really got a great response from the people of Hudson Falls,” said Newell. “It’s a beautiful space, and I knew the people of this community would support it. They’ve always had a creative spirit and loved music. I saw that way back when I was a high school student.”
He had hoped to begin work on the building back in 2003 when Dunnigan first contacted him, but a serious personal issue put things on hold.
“I didn’t know George at all until he called me out of the blue in 2003, showed me the building and wanted to know what I thought could be done with it,” said Newell. “I was interested, but then I got married and our son was born sick. That ended that. Fortunately, everything has turned out OK, and after my son was in remission for five years I wanted to get back into it.”
Dunnigan, however, wasn’t really interested.
“I called George up and he wasn’t that excited about it,” said Newell. “I think he was just in a different place in his life. But I said, ‘Come on, I got a reason to be happy and celebrate,’ so I talked him into it.”
The two became partners in the building, and are now in the process of forming a not-for-profit organization with Newell very likely serving as executive director.
Dunnigan, who also owns and operates The Historic Inn of Fort Edward just a few miles south on Route 4, bought the old courthouse — last used in that capacity in 1993 — at auction from Washington County.
Restaurant in works
The actual courtroom, where the music hall is now, is on the second floor. Dunnigan is planning to put in a restaurant on the ground floor.
“I always thought the building had a lot of character, so we bought it and restored it,” he said. “I think it’s a beautiful building, and there are elements to it you just couldn’t replace. I heard the story about how the judges and their staff were very recalcitrant to move out of this charming old building into the new one. They really dragged their feet with the move, and I guess it’s only legend, but they said they had to tell them they were going to withhold their paychecks if they didn’t move.”
Carol Dunnigan gives her husband and Newell all the credit for bringing the old place back to life.
“It certainly wasn’t me who wanted to buy it,” she said. “I’ve grown to love the old building, but at first I wasn’t convinced it was a good idea.”
Until Newell got involved, she was right. A theatrical troupe used it to mount a stage play on a handful of occasions, and Dunnigan did install a film projector and would occasionally show movies.
“We did a few things, but there wasn’t much at all going on until Jonathan got started,” said George Dunnigan. “I had met him maybe 10 years ago and asked him about it, but when his son got gravely ill he was sort of out of commission. But I knew that he liked the place. He said the acoustics were great.”
The music hall has space for about 175 people in the main room and another 50 in a small balcony.
“We took out the judge’s bench and the jury box, but the benches are the ones that were here for the courthouse,” said Newell. “When Carol and George bought the place, they painted it and put in some carpet to cover the tile floor. I can remember coming here as a kid and watching a trial from the balcony, and even though it’s been renovated it still looks the same. You can tell it was a courthouse.”
Every Friday night, the Hudson River Music Hall hosts an open-mike night, and Newell has various musical acts lined up to perform throughout June and July.
“We can see now that this building can really serve a niche in our community as a cultural arts center,” he said. “I think of Hudson Falls as a smaller version of Schenectady, and I think it’s great how Proctors and places like the Northeast Ballet have really revived that city. I’m thinking that maybe we can do the same thing here. When I grew up here the mills were all operational and Hudson Falls was a different place. We all love this town and we want to see it come back.”
The village of Hudson Falls, originally called Sandy Hill, is in the town of Kingsbury. The town was chartered by King George III in 1762, and a small settlement first popped up in Hudson Falls in 1765 after Albert Baker built a sawmill on the Hudson River next to the falls that now bear his name.
“The earliest I can find evidence of the place being called Sandy Hill is in a minute book of the town of Kingsbury in 1792,” said Paul Loding, who serves as historian of both Hudson Falls Village and the Town of Kingsbury.
“The place didn’t become a village until 1810, and in 1910 there was a bunch of people who wanted to bring tourism to the village and that’s why the name was changed. The falls here are the second highest in the state, after only Niagara Falls, so in the election of 1910 they voted on the new name and it passed.”
Before a friend talked him out of it, Newell was going to call his new musical venue the Hudson Falls Music Hall.
“That seemed like the logical name, but then a friend of mine said, ‘How about the Hudson River Music Hall,’ ” said Newell.
“You can see the Hudson River from here, and I don’t know that there’s another place with that name. I’ve also played at places along the river and all along [Interstate] 87 from Manhattan to Plattsburgh, so the Hudson River Music Hall made sense.”