Woodstock has long been a center for the arts in the Hudson Valley. It lent its name to the iconic Woodstock festival, and prolific artists like Bob Dylan and Van Morrison spent time working on their art right here in Hudson Valley. Modern songwriters, as well as makers of craft beverage and food concepts, still flock to the quiet Catskills town.
One legendary hangout for the stars is about to make a huge comeback.
After a long period of dormancy, the historic Bearsville Center gets revived by British transplant Lizzie Vann.
“When I was about 13 years old, I went down to my local public library and I borrowed Janis Joplin’s Pearl album, which had just come out. I thought, ‘I want to go wherever Janis Joplin had been.’ That led me to Woodstock, because of her connection and the whole hippie movement,” Vann says.
After a nearly two-year journey, Vann unveils the restoration of the Bearsville Center. The completed project includes an 850-person theater, a state-of-the-art recording studio, a small business incubator, a café, a bistro, and more. She carries on the legacy of Albert and Sally Grossman, two Hudson Valleyites that left indelible marks on the folk-rock music scene and the entire counter-cultural wave of artists.
“Albert’s mission was to have a place where musicians and artists could come and rehearse. They could create new songs, they could form new bands, they could record them at his recording studios, they could issue a record through his record label, and they could perform at the beginning of a tour at the Bearsville Theater,” Vann says.
Grossman worked with some of the most notable artists of the 1960s and managed everyone from Bob Dylan and The Band to Vann’s personal favorite, Janis Joplin. He and his team event built cabins in Woodstock for the musicians to spend time in the region. Van Morrison wrote the entirety of his opus Moondance here. Dylan penned tunes like “My Back Pages” and “It Ain’t Me Babe” while staying in Ulster County. Dylan crashed a motorcycle right near the Grossmans’ house. Many thought he was hiding out there or perhaps had died, but actually spent most of his time with The Band at Big Pink in Saugerties. Dylan put Sally on the cover of his 1965 album Bringing It All Back Home.
Though the place was absolutely bubbling with superstars during the height of the hippie era, it never reached the full potential of Grossman’s vision. His plans to build a stage were for pitch performances; it was never intended for the public. Because they managed the artists directly, the Grossmans pursued the concept to sell music. They constructed a huge bar to wine and dine visiting members of the industry and hired the same architect who designed Electric Lady Studios in Manhattan (the same Electric Lady commissioned by Jimi Hendrix).
By the time of Grossman’s death in 1986, the Bearsville Theater had not been completed. Sally Grossman finished the project and welcomed the Woodstock Mountain Revue to the stage in 1989. Meatloaf recorded one of the best-selling albums of all time, Bat Out of Hell, under Sally Grossman’s management of the studios. Other esteemed artists like Aerosmith, Peter Tosh, Patti Smith, and The Psychedelic Furs also recorded releases here. Musicians routinely made stops at the theater on their tour to pay homage to artists that inspired them, but there was never enough space to host large concerts for the public. Upkeep ceased on the complex, and Sally Grossman passed away early in 2021.
Vann purchased the site in 2019 and put over 15 months of effort into restoring it beyond its former glory. She was a food entrepreneur for many years. Her most successful venture was a line of organic baby food called Organix. After growing the brand for over 16 years, she sold the company and used the money to invest in property. On an island called Anna Maria near Tampa, she turned an old building, a Sears Roebuck cottage, and a house into a small village. Vann dubbed this project the Historic Green Village, due to its very low environmental footprint.
“The ultimate recycling is to recycle a building,” Vann says. “So I’ve done this before. However, it’s more of a challenge because the buildings are more derelict and nothing had been spent on it really for the last 10 years. It was in very poor condition.”
When Vann first entered the theater, a deluge of rainwater poured down from the ceilings. Black mold filled the space with a noxious odor, doors fell off of bathroom stalls, and the roof was missing gutters. The Bearsville Theater was in horrible shape, yet Vann still vied to restore its beauty. After extensively rebuilding interiors, trenching storm drains, constructing new roofs on every building, and going through mold remediation, she ensured that the spaces are virtually unrecognizable.
Equal parts museum of the past and incubator for the future, the Bearsville Center is a gorgeous complex for up-and-coming artists. The Bearsville Theater offers 350 seats and standing room for 500 people. Its large, sleek bar impresses guests with its vibrant colors and elegant design. Vann booked several limited-capacity concerts for the spring, with potential record fairs, open-air shows, and more planned for the outdoor spaces.
A trip around the building reveals many nods to the past. Vann recreated Dylan’s writing room at the bottom of the stairs. A huge picture of the Ashokan Reservoir references the inspiration of Moondance, and, of course, the dressing room has a stunning tribute to Joplin.
The Utopia Building, formerly home to Radio Woodstock, boasts a 2,000 sq ft soundstage and a modern recording studio.
“Todd Rundgren was enamored with the idea of utopia, and called his band Utopia. Albert Grossman’s vision was a utopia for musicians, you know, the eating, drinking, writing, creating, rehearsing, recording, and performing in one space,” Vann says. “Woodstock is the most lovely Catskills town. It reminds me of the Lake District [back in England]. The wooded hills, mountains, and lakes are so serene.”
The Utopia Building also hosts multiple small businesses. Vann seeks to launch more than just musicians at the Bearsville Center, bringing attention to local restauranteurs as well. Closed for many years, the Bear Café reopens as the Bear Cantina. The Cantina serves up fresh Mexican fare. The Little Bear crafts delicious Chinese cuisine in the same space it’s been in for years. Pretty soon, Vann will also open the Utopia Tavern, a bistro-style restaurant on the same site.
“I had this great sense that this is somewhere that is very beloved by the Woodstock community. My excitement now is to get it open and have it used by the community, and be just as beloved by it now as it was in the past, whether it’s people using the restaurants, or coming to a concert, or having a family event here,” Vann says. “I want the people of Woodstock to feel that this place is theirs.”