Dreamland Theater on Nantucket Prepares to Open

One of America’s Oldest Theaters to be Reborn

The new Dreamland Theater received its Certificate of Occupancy from the Building Department late this afternoon, taking a critical step closer to opening for business.  “After so many years without the Dreamland, it’s exciting to think that we will be showing movies again very soon,” said General Manager Jonathan Anastos.  It also will again be a home for the Nantucket Film Festival starting June 20, 2012.

The Dreamland will offer films, educational programs and world-class entertainment, as well as a venue for community events, conferences, private events and gatherings.

The building, with its focus on community programming, fulfills the mission of The Nantucket Dreamland Foundation, a non-profit formed in 2007 by Jim Palotta, Philippe Laffont, Barry Sternlicht, and Wendy Schmidt– four summer residents of the island—who purchased the old theater, which had fallen into disrepair following an abandoned attempt to develop the land in 2001.

After the property had been purchased, it became clear that the old structure could not be salvaged and would have to be replaced.   The decision was made to carefully deconstruct in hopes of incorporating existing historic elements in the new building.

Since 2007, the Foundation has raised more than $32M of an estimated $34M capital campaign.  Hundreds of donors, large and small, have contributed to the project to support the return of a beloved institution.  Board members, in addition to the founders, include Jonathan Burkhart, Lesley King-Grenier, Maureen Hackett, John S. Johnson, Bill Liddle, Chris & Kathleen Matthews, Kathy Penske, Charley Polachi, Angela Raynor, Charles Ryan, and Burwell Schorr.

In describing the significance of the new theater, Board President Wendy Schmidt noted, “In the rebirth of this theater for the next century, we are resurrecting a place in Town that holds many fond memories for generations of Nantucket residents.

But we’ve also taken something that was a summer-only theater and have remade it,” she added, “using some of its own historic fabric, into a state-of-the-art facility that will serve the island year round– and digitally connect us with programming far beyond our shores.  It’s hard to overestimate the impact of this.”

The Dreamland Theater building is a multipurpose facility with a variety of intended uses in addition to the presentation of movies.  The 320-seat Main Theater offers a main stage with theatrical lighting, excellent acoustics, a digital projection system for movies, and new wireless assistive listening technology for the hearing impaired.

The upstairs Studio Theater, also equipped with digital projection, holds 140 removable seats for showing movies, including independent films and classics, and for hosting more intimate theatrical and musical performances.  The dramatic room, featuring heavy timber wood trusses salvaged from the original structure and views over the rooftops of Town, is also designed to accommodate speakers, meetings, gatherings and social events.

In the rear of the building, The Harbor View Room, served by an adjacent catering kitchen, boasts a breathtaking outside terrace, overlooking Nantucket Harbor, and is envisioned as a unique place to host meetings, gatherings and celebrations.

Considered one of the oldest movie theaters in America, The Dreamland began its life as a Quaker Meeting House, was once a straw hat factory, part of a hotel, and finally, after being floated by barge to its present location in 1906, it became Nantucket’s first vaudeville house. (A history of the building is attached).

Patty Roggeveen, Executive Director of The Dreamland Foundation, who helped coordinate the planning and construction of the new Dreamland, was concerned about protecting the long and rich history of the building during construction.

“The close proximity of the site to the harbor required the entire site to be surrounded by a cofferdam and dewatering system to allow the excavation to remain dry during construction,” she said.   “Also, the salvaged wood trusses and windows required restoration and coordination with the steel erection in order to integrate the trusses into the new steel structure.  This is a blend of old and new design elements coupled with premier technologies.”

Looking ahead to the opening events and to the months ahead, Wendy Schmidt said she anticipates the positive economic impacts of The Dreamland on businesses on the island.

“I think about the giant magnet The Dreamland will become—for businesses in Town, for restaurants, for the other cultural institutions.  We see our role at The Foundation to serve as a social and cultural hub, a partner for other island nonprofits who can benefit from the facilities and capacities of The Dreamland, and as a beacon for the performing arts and film communities in the region.  We’re excited to see the possibilities unfold.”

At 15,000 square feet, The Dreamland uses geothermal heating and cooling for energy efficiency, and contains a rich selection of recycled and green materials.  The building is slated to obtain a LEED Silver rating from the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), and will be among the first projects in Nantucket’s Old Historic District to reach such a distinction.


The original Dreamland Theater building has a long and rich history.  Originally built in 1835 as a Quaker Meetinghouse located on Main Street near Fair Street, it was moved to Brant Point in 1883, where it became the center portion of the Nantucket Hotel.

When the hotel was sold in 1905, the meetinghouse portion of the building was purchased by the Improved Order of the Red Men.  It was disconnected, placed on a barge, and floated across the harbor where it was relocated to its present site, where it opened as Nantucket’s first vaudeville house.

In time, the first floor of the building functioned as a moving picture theater and the second floor was a lodge room and dance hall.  A large addition constructed in 1922 increased the theater’s seating capacity to 600.

The building functioned as a theater until 2005, and following several unsuccessful redevelopment schemes for the building, it was purchased by the Dreamland Foundation in 2007.  Following a lengthy study which deemed the building structurally unsound, the Foundation decided that renovating the existing building would be impractical.  Plans were put in motion to raise funds and construct a facility whose design would honor its heritage through the re-use of some of the old buildings parts as architectural features.

The construction of the new theater building was complex. Construction began in January 2011, and because of a long-standing requirement in Nantucket’s Historic District, the entire exterior shell needed to be completed by June 15th 2011.  Interior construction continued throughout the summer and into early 2012. The close proximity of the site to the harbor required the entire site to be surrounded by a cofferdam and dewatering system to allow the excavation to remain dry during construction.

The building footprint is mere inches from the property line on two sides and resides approximately four feet from an existing building on the third side.  This presented many logistical challenges during construction, including the need to completely shut off one of the adjacent streets during construction to allow access for a crane.