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Silent No Longer: Locals Restore Ithaca’s Silent Movie Studio

Written by Allison Musante

Wharton Studio in its heyday

Before Hollywood, humble Ithaca, New York, was a film capital of the world. The year was 1912: the height of the silent film era.

Theodore Wharton, a producer from Wisconsin, came to Ithaca to film a Cornell University football game for the Chicago Essanay Film Company. Wharton was stunned by Ithaca’s natural beauty and decided it was the perfect backdrop for his films. Theodore and his brother, Leopold, formed Wharton Inc. in April 1914 and leased a studio in Renwick Park -- now called Stewart Park -- located near Cayuga Lake. There they produced over 100 episodes for serial films, some featuring stars like Pearl White, the world-renowned dancer Irene Castle, Lionel Barrymore (of the Barrymore family), and the special effects magic of Harry Houdini.

This video tells the studio's fascinating story and includes clips from some of its films:

Unfortunately, the brothers faced financial ruin in 1919 and abandoned the studio in Stewart Park. According to local historian Terry Harbin, founder of Ithaca Made Movies, the brothers never worked together again after parting ways in 1919. However, a new partnership has emerged in Ithaca. Two locals are devoting their time and effort toward reviving this important and fascinating historical landmark in Ithaca. Connie Bruce and Diana Riesman formed the Ithaca Motion Picture Project this past year.

“We’re calling it a project because its focus is educational and cultural programs for students and visitors to Tompkins County,” Riesman says. “We’re creating a destination within Stewart Park. It’s our vision that the Wharton Brothers studio building will be an interactive, museum-gallery setting that will feature exhibitions that will reflect upon on film and multimedia, which are basically different forms of motion pictures.”

They envision the renovated studio to be an educational center for the entire community to learn about the Wharton Brothers and their pioneering days in silent filmmaking. They are planning to have spaces for offices, exhibition, and performance as well as state-of-the-art equipment for screening films. But the work waits. Riesman and Bruce say the building’s interior will require a major overhaul.

“We’re starting from scratch on the inside,” Riesman explains. “The studio has some very interesting columns and some original ceiling hardware, which we definitely want to preserve. But now the building is being used for storage for the Department of Public Works, and we feel that’s just unacceptable given its historical significance.”

However, the building is in excellent shape, which will keep the authenticity of the destination intact. “The building itself is the history,” Bruce says. “We just want to preserve it and bring it to life again.”

Riesman and Bruce are working with local architect Todd Zwigard, who says the building presents many interesting challenges. He is deciding how best to design the building so that it maintains its historical integrity as well accommodates the spaces the project needs to be a vibrant educational center. He is also planning to employ sustainable and eco-smart strategies in the refurbishment.

Zwigard is just one member of a large community that’s been rooting on this project since it began. Riesman and Bruce say they’ve received much support from the city of Ithaca’s Chamber of Commerce, who recognized the project’s potential as a tourist destination. They were included in a $15,000 tourism grant for the Stewart Park Rehabilitation Action Plan.

1 Comment

It is wonderful what is being done here. My family always talked about the silent films and seeing them made. I was born in Ithaca in 1942 and remember these things from my grandparents, mother, and uncle...all of the Raymond and Florence Halliday Hoare family. Thank you!


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