1/15/08 Update: Here's that high-rise hotel Edith predicted was coming: Curbed.
If you find yourself walking by the Thirteenth Street Repertory Theater and the door is open, take a step inside and have a chat with Edith O’Hara. She’ll greet you warmly, turn off the television, and sit you down on one of the worn-out couches to tell you all about the theater, which she established in 1972 and which is today under imminent threat of destruction.
She’ll show you the history she’s dug up on the the building, which was constructed in the late 1700s and became an Underground Railroad site. The carriage house (now the dressing room) has a trap door in the basement floor through which runaway slaves were hidden on their way to freedom. In the 1940s, it became a popular ceramics studio and Ms. O’Hara still has the kiln. Now the theater is her home, literally; she lives in the apartment upstairs.
If you ask, she’ll tell you about how she grew up in a logging camp in the wilds of Idaho, where she lived with nature, had no electricity, and never heard the word “theater” until her teacher gave her the role of George Washington in the school play “and it was just Heaven.” Little Edith was hooked. She later discovered that, more than acting, she loved “providing a space to bring people together,” and that’s exactly what she’s been doing for the past 35 years.
Many performers got their start on her stage, including Bette Midler and Chazz Palminteri, who wrote this about the theater’s demise, “It’s not just closing down the 13th Street Theater. It’s closing down a whole universe.”
Unfortunately, that universe is just one half block outside the Greenwich Village Historic Preservation District and that means it’s not protected — except, of course, by Ms. O’Hara. At 90 years old, she’s still a determined fighter. She’s had five eviction notices thrown out by judges and she continues to battle against the forces of development -- forces she has seen mounting over the past few years: "Right now is worse than ever before. History in New York City is being torn down and abandoned. NYU and the New School are absorbing everything in sight. Everyone is noting there's an ongoing lack of concern for anything but development."
“They want to do a high-rise on this site,” she told me, “maybe a hotel. The building next door is in the throes,” meaning it’s for sale, or has been sold, and is slated for the wrecking ball. But the developers need three more feet of width and Ms. O’Hara’s home is in their way.
Luckily, the fight won’t end with her. She has instilled her love of theater in her children. All of them are performers, including actor Jenny O’Hara. “When I go,” Edith assured me, “my daughters will do whatever I wish. They’ll keep on fighting.”