Litchfield in full cultural revival with the restoration of the Opera House – West Central Tribune
— The town of Litchfield invites you to the opera, or at least to see the restored grandeur of its downtown opera house.
The Litchfield Opera House is one of the cornerstones of the town of Litchfield. It has fallen into disrepair twice in its more than a century of existence and has been revived both times due to its impact on the community.
“The building was built in 1900 as the Grand Opera House. It was the largest opera house west of the Mississippi when it was built,” said facilities coordinator Connie Lies.
The building is constructed entirely of three-row brick, which means there are three layers of interlocking bricks. There is no wooden structure supporting the building, but steel was used, which Lies said was “extremely unusual for its time”.
“When the building was built – 1900, 1900, remember this – there were about 360 electric lights when most places had no idea what electricity was,” Lies said. “It was all-electric from the day it was built, which is pretty phenomenal. The town had a power plant built in 1900, and that’s how it ran all the electric lights.
The building was used as an opera house – attracting leading opera actors and singers of the time, “because it was the biggest” in the area, Lies said – until the 1920s, when vaudeville took hold. been replaced by speaking images. The building was still used after that, but not as often.
“The thing was, you could get on a train in Minneapolis-St. Paul, you could come here – it took a little over an hour – for a day trip,” she said. “…They would come to the theatre, then take the train back and go home, much like daytime destinations now.”
The building was almost destroyed twice. The first time it was reclaimed due to the Great Depression and the second time due to its historical significance in the 2000s.
The renovation and restoration work on the building, which began in 2008, continues to this day.
Historically, the Litchfield Opera House was used as a meeting place for important events, such as the exhibition of Thomas Edison’s phonograph, the founding of the Rural Electric Association – the first in the country – and meeting state and national politicians .
It housed the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars; an induction center for World War II, Korea and Vietnam; and served as a training facility prior to the construction of Litchfield Arsenal. In fact, there used to be a shooting range in the basement, and the WWII restrooms and lockers are still in the basement.
It was also used as an entertainment venue for sports, plays, and concerts, as well as community education classes.
The opera house has also hosted a number of weddings, funerals, graduations and other significant events over the years. Today the building is the largest venue in town available for hire, and the Greater Litchfield Opera House Association hopes to continue its legacy.
By the 1930s, the opera house’s roof had leaked and the ornate plaster ceilings had fallen off. The entire building was in disrepair after decades of limited use.
“But, there was a depression. There was no money to tear it down, but there was WPA (Works Progress Administration) money to fix it,” Lies said.
And so, the building was completely gutted and redone in 1935.
Prior to 1935, the ground floor of the opera house was sloped to accommodate seating. It was flattened during the restoration to instead accommodate the grain and chicken shows that became popular at that time.
The original structure lacked a basement, but it was determined that the building needed structural support, so Bert Thulin was hired in 1935 to build one.
“The basement was quite a feat of engineering,” Lies said.
Thulin would go into the crawl space under the building and blast one section at a time with dynamite, carrying the dirt away in a wheelbarrow. He poured the concrete floor one three-foot section at a time.
“They never moved the building, not one point,” Lies said, noting that Thulin’s technique was unusual for the time and the concrete has no cracks to this day. “We have engineers coming here to see what Bert built and how you would make a building that size without damaging it and putting a basement under it.”
By the late 1960s, the opera had lost much of its grandeur. The main space had been engulfed by desks, the windows had been covered in pink aluminum paneling, the lobby stairs were hidden behind walls, and the stage and balcony had been ripped out with only a small portion of the balcony remaining.
By 2000, the building was no longer in use and was in very poor condition, with floors and walls covered in moldy carpeting and wallpaper.
The discussion about what to do with the building went on for years. A possible reuse study resulted in a split between those who felt the building was useless and others who wanted it restored.
A small group of people showed up and offered to buy the building for $100,000 minus the cost of demolition, which was $99,000.
“They offered a 1900 silver dollar with the stipulation and understanding that the remainder of the amount offered would be invested in the building for use by the public,” Lies said.
The group formed the non-profit Greater Litchfield Opera House, bought the building and started working there in 2008.
The association began with the exterior of the building – replacing the windows, installing doors closer to the original 1900 doors, and removing the salmon-colored aluminum that hid the windows.
Work on the lobby began in 2011, tearing down the walls and revealing the original character.
Work underway to install new balusters, posts and steps for the lobby stairs will cost around $60,000, according to Lies.
The new lobby windows are replicas of the 1900 windows, and there are five chandeliers — three originals and two replicas.
The balcony has been reinstalled but is unfinished. The rear part of the original balcony from 1900 still needs to be repaired and the railings need to be replaced as it is currently not possible to view the stage from a seated position.
Lies said the building still had perfect acoustics.
“…It’s just fantastic, the sound up there,” she said of the balcony. “Every whisper on stage – you can hear it. … I’m just thrilled that one day we’ll open it up for people to have that experience.
Photos on display show historical events that took place in the building. There is a photo of a senator’s funeral and another of the annual meeting of shareholders of the rural electricity cooperative.
All of the building’s original light fixtures were found in the basement, although they had been repainted several times. Lies’ husband spent months cleaning them, even using a toothpick to remove paint from the grooves of the fixtures.
The opera house’s floor has been refinished and is due for another polish, but that won’t happen until all construction work is complete, according to Lies.
The Greater Litchfield Opera House Association received a generous donation of $17,000 in velvet to update the curtains throughout the building, and a woman agreed to sew them at a reasonable rate.
The scene is currently being rebuilt to be code compliant.
“It’s usable — it’s not dangerous — but it’s not theater-compliant,” Lies said, noting that new velor curtains were purchased last year with a grant from Southwest Minnesota Arts. Council.
New panels at the front of the stage will resemble the original panels from 1900, she added.
The scene also resonates. The SMAC grant will help improve both the sound and stage lighting, from manual to computer-controlled.
A board member of the opera association is a retired sound and lighting professional who retired to Litchfield and has worked with artists such as Adele, Prince and Lori Line .
“We have people who are well placed to sit on the board,” she said, noting that there was a master finish carpenter, a sound and lighting technician and an actress at the board of directors, as well as an editor, a retired teacher, a bank employee. and an accountant.
“A lot of places in small towns, they just can’t get that quality advice that can really help round things out. We really see the effects of having this talent within us to tap into.
Future work on the building is estimated at approximately $400,000. The association received a Legacy grant of $100,000, but the group relies heavily on volunteers to do much of the work. Lies noted that someone usually works at the opera 30 to 40 hours a week.