Photo Courtesy Richard Margolis
130-136 East Elm Street
Village of Penn Yan, Yates County
Listed in the State and National Registers of Historic Places, the Sampson Theatre, built in 1910, is architecturally and historically significant as a rare surviving example of a vaudeville house/movie theater in Penn Yan. For its first 20 years, the Sampson was the center of entertainment and live stage productions in the Penn Yan community. The building opened to the public on October 12, 1910, with a performance of Louis Mann’s comedy, “The Cheater.” Live stage productions of a broad range of theatrical and musical shows continued until 1927. Between 1915 and 1928, the theater also served as a movie house, showing both silent films and, slightly later, “talkies.” The Sampson Theatre is also significant locally as an important example of the early use of poured concrete construction. The theatre represents an unusually early and ambitious use of concrete in a small town setting. The choice appears likely to have been a response to the loss of an earlier building with an auditorium on this site by fire. The theatre was designed by local benefactor Dr. Frank Sampson, who arrived in Penn Yan in 1888 after graduation from the Hahnneman Medical College. He was a prominent physician and surgeon in Penn Yan until his death in 1928. In designing the theater, Dr. Sampson was assisted by consulting architect Frank Harrison.
With two balconies and twelve boxes, the theater could seat over 900. The large stage and “fly space” reportedly could accommodate elaborate scenery from New York City playhouses that could not be accommodated in any Rochester or Elmira theater. Although other theaters were subsequently built in Penn Yan, the Sampson was the first building specifically built as an entertainment center. With eventual competition from other theaters in the community, the Sampson was converted into an indoor miniature golf course in 1929. In 1936, a change in ownership resulted in a new use for the building: an automobile garage and showroom. Between the 1970s and early 21st century, the building served as a warehouse for tires. In 2004, the former theater was acquired by the Pennsylvania Yankee Theater Company, members of which are in the process of restoring the building to its original character and use as a center of the performing arts.
A highly visible anchor in Penn Yan’s village commercial district, the Sampson Theatre is one of the most important historic theaters in the Finger Lakes region. Its exceptional historic and architectural significance, combined with the on-going rehabilitation by the current owner, make it an important candidate for revitalization as a community performing arts center.