UP CLOSE: Tahawus Center lands on National Registry of Historic Places

Rebecca Kelly and Craig Brashear show off the National Registry of Historic Places plaque outside the Tahawus Cultural Center in AuSable Forks. (Photo provided)

AUSABLE FORKS — After a year-long process of research and evaluation, Rebecca Kelly and Craig Brashear — of Rebecca Kelly Ballet fame — landed the Tahawus Cultural Center on the National Registry of Historic Places this spring — just as they settled into their new status as full-time residents of the North Country.

Dance partners

Kelly and Brashear met through dance, but Kelly said she had interactions with Brashear before she knew his name. The couple went to neighboring colleges in Pennsylvania, and Kelly said Brashear maintains that he saw her spiraling a football to one of her female friends on campus, even though she didn’t notice him at the time. Then, when she started substitute teaching for a dance teacher who was on maternity leave, Brashear showed up in her class. She told the teacher that she had a “wonderful male dancer,” but she’d misunderstood his name and called him David Bradshaw.

Plaque outside the Tahawus Cultural Center in AuSable Forks (Photo provided)

After college, Kelly was an independent choreographer and she needed a male dancer for her group. On a recommendation from a friend, she chose Brashear to join. Kelly said she and Brashear spent a lot of time together in and outside of dance, and their friends started to question their relationship status. Kelly said she knew she liked him, but she was too busy with choreography at that time to think about anything else.

But the people in her life persistently pointed to her and Brashear’s chemistry; Kelly said he met her mother once, who promptly asked when they’d get married.

Kelly said that since they started dancing together, she and Brashear have always gelled as partners. And they decided to form a professional partnership when they created their nonprofit cultural arts organization in the 1970s, the Appleby Foundation, which would eventually make the Tahawus Center revival possible.

But fellow formative members of the foundation continued the popular tradition of asking the couple about wedding bells. Kelly said the founding board members told the couple they wouldn’t get on the board if they weren’t married. So, Kelly said she and Brashear formed the Appleby Foundation and got married in 1979. Now, they’ve reached another personal and professional milestone with their new permanent residency in Saranac and the Tahawus Center’s listing in the National Registry of Historic Places.

“The foundation has survived all this time, and so has our marriage,” she said.

“What’s your legacy going to be?”

In the first decade or so of marriage, the couple traveled the world before having their daughter, Hilary, and turning their focus to Tahawus. But it was another Hillary who inspired the couple’s dedication to renovating the Tahawus Center and enriching the fine arts culture in AuSable Forks– former first lady Hillary Clinton.

In the late 2000s, while Kelly was still dancing and teaching primarily in her SoHo studio, she and Brashear were invited along with other artists to meet Clinton at the Strand Theatre in Plattsburgh. When Kelly approached Clinton at the theater, she said she was “dazzled” that Clinton recalled Kelly’s specific dance efforts and asked about her onstage program.

But then Clinton asked Kelly, “You’ve been coming up here (to the North Country) for all these years; what’s your legacy going to be?”

Kelly said she can’t remember how she replied in the moment, but she and Brashear started to think about the future. The couple had traveled to the Adirondacks every summer to teach dance and stay in their summer cabin near AuSable Forks, but they always returned to New York City as their permanent residence.

But one day while they were in AuSable Forks, they noticed the derelict Masonic Lodge building at the center of town. Kelly said she thought it looked like a loft at the time, and it got her thinking about how they transformed a loft-like building in SoHo to become their dance studio. Brashear and Kelly decided that creating a similar studio in the North Country would be their legacy.

They corresponded with Clinton to receive assistance through the process, and while Kelly admitted politicians don’t often show their support in dollar amounts, she said “they do open doors.” And when directors of the Appleby Foundation heard her story, Kelly said they supported the new center, too.

The Masonic Lodge had spent years on the market by then, but no one seemed to want the project. Kelly said she and Brashear were hoping the Masons would donate the building since it was in such disrepair and would eventually serve the community, but in the end, the Appleby Foundation funded the purchase. She said she thought the community was unsure about how the purchase would pan out for the town, but they entrusted the couple to make much-needed improvements to the lodge. Kelly said she and Brashear felt lucky and honored to make the purchase.

“We were not daunted by anything, nor were we really crazy; we just thought, ‘We can do this,'” she said.

New homes

Kelly said the historic building has gone through different stages since its origins in 1911, including alterations done to the roof in the 1960s, up until the completion of the building’s storefront restoration in 2019. She said they respected the building and wanted to bring it back to how the building’s architect, C.F. Kingsley, intended it to be designed. That meant avoiding the “twigged-out” Adirondack-style lodge in favor of an “authentically North Country” space that matched the rest of AuSable Forks. The couple knew this meant serious refurbishing on the interior and insulation of the building.

While they began to acquire the three-story building around 2008, Kelly said she and Brashear couldn’t initiate renovations until 2010 because the building had asbestos issues from “30 years of emptiness and broken windows.” To fund the renovations, they received grants from the New York State Council on the Arts, the Cloudsplitter Adirondack Foundation, the Charles R. Wood Foundation, other sponsors, community fundraisers and online fundraisers like Kickstarter and Indigogo. By 2011, Kelly said the center started its first cultural programs.

She said reclaiming the space started with the ground floor, which was in the best shape. The Masons previously moved their activities to the ground floor, leaving the top two floors empty. The first floor acted as a gallery and antique space after it was refurbished, and now it’s a rental space for two tenants. In the building’s early years, local newspaper the Adirondack Record was printed on the ground floor, and Kelly said the space was a laundromat at some point.

“The building has served the community in so many ways for over 100 years,” she said.

When it came to the second floor, renovations started to intensify. Kelly said they were guided by the American Historical Association to identify what restorations mattered and were meaningful. She said she wanted to make the building snug, safe and attractive, but she didn’t want to change it significantly. They made the steep staircase more accessible, but Kelly said they didn’t have to do much to make the second floor beautiful — they just had to “bring it back” to life. Now, the second floor is “The Windows Gallery,” named for its broad, tall windows.

“But we have enough wall space for art, believe me,” she said.

This spring, the gallery was granted a new hanging lights system to display an art exhibit by Charles Wood. Kelly said they’re considering making more improvements to the gallery, like sanding the wooden floors, but she said she also likes the original charm — gallery visitors can still see the outline of a pool table on the floor, left from the years when the Masons still held activities on the top two floors.

When Kelly and Brashear got to the third floor, which now serves as Cloudsplitter Dance Studio, Kelly said the renovation process reached its height. There was falling plaster, damages to the attic and insulation from “generations and generations of pigeons,” and windows in disrepair. She had the vision to replicate her SoHo studio, which had white walls and a gray-blue floor specialized for dance, and volunteers of all ages in the AuSable Forks community helped her and Brashear make it happen.

Kelly said the process took a while, but she thinks parents were eager to help and support their children’s interests in the arts. In the Cloudsplitter studio, they’ve taught intro to ballet, hosted theater and music groups, and teaching advanced classes. They’ve even hosted rehearsals for ballet groups from the city, most often working on the Snow Variation from the “Nutcracker” ballet. This fall, they’re launching jazz classes every Wednesday for adults and teens.

Since the pandemic started, Kelly said class sizes have grown limited, and she’s meeting more students one-on-one. But because of the center’s number of windows and a new appointment-only system for visitors, she said the center is able to carry on with most of their activities in safety.

Overall, Kelly said she thinks the community is pleased with the Tahawus Center restoration. She said it was such a sad-looking place before they purchased it, and she’s glad to know that there’s a new generation in AuSable Forks that doesn’t know the building as the desolate place it once was. They received a plaque over the summer recognizing the building’s status as a historic site, which Kelly said testifies to the long process of restoration and research that culminated in the Tahawus Cultural Center. And she and Brashear will be here year-round to enjoy it.

Kelly said she and Brashear always thought they’d end up as permanent North Country residents, but COVID-19 made the move more immediate. They’d spent the last 10 years building their new cabin in Saranac, and when they left the city last summer to visit, a medical emergency kept them at the new cabin through the winter. Since then, Kelly said the medical emergency was resolved, but she and Brashear never went back to stay in SoHo.