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Saving a piece of history

The Litchfield Opera House, which was built in 1900 for $9,000, was on the brink of demolition, but thanks to a group of active citizens who fought to save the building, the city abandoned the demolition plan and sold the property to the recently formed Greater Litchfield Opera House Association, Inc. (GLOHAI) in 2008. The price: $100,000 — a 1900 silver dollar payment with the understanding that the balance of $99,999 be used to improve the facility for the community. The 1900 date on the silver dollar coin commemorated the construction date of the opera house. History The Litchfield Opera House has been an active participant in the Litchfield community for 112 years. The historic building was designed by St. Paul architect William T. Towner to serve the community as a gathering place for social functions and entertainment. It was constructed primarily of locally made yellow brick with designs in red brick and terra cotta. The building had 200 incandescent lights, 13 light switches, and permanent seating for 600 people — 200 in the balcony and 400 on the main floor. The building had a spacious lobby with chandeliers and two-story box seats on each side of the stage. It was a jewel on the prairie. The grand opening took place on November 8, 1900. In the early years, the Opera House was well attended. Litchfield newspapers documented performances by numerous visiting national theatrical groups and frequent events such as concerts, high school commencements, debates, plays and visiting dignitaries. The building provided space for dances, roller skating, 4-H meetings, wedding receptions and church suppers. Two community favorites, REA days and the Land ‘O Lakes meetings provided live radio broadcasts from Minneapolis radio stations and entertainment like the KSTP Barn Dance. Coming out of the Great Depression in 1935, the Opera House was completely remodeled and reopened as the Litchfield Community Building. It still functioned as a gathering place for meetings, wedding celebrations, dances and exhibitions of arts and theater. Beginning in the early 1970s, the Opera House was again renovated to house city offices. The exterior was sandblasted; masonry joints were repointed with Portland cement too hard for the brick; aluminum doors and windows were installed; and the interior was extensively divided and altered. For decades the building served the city until its closure in 2002 due to indoor air quality issues. In December 2006, the Litchfield City Council voted to demolish the building.  In the spring of 2007, the city authorized a re-use study to explore the use of the building prior to it being torn down. The building being listed on the National Register of Historic Places provided for some protection.  The study found overwhelming support for saving the structure amid skepticism about using city tax dollars to do so.  As the study neared completion, a group of citizens, some members of the re-use committee, formed the Greater Litchfield Opera House Association, Inc.  Interior demolition of office spaces, false ceilings, 1970s paneling, and flooring started in January 2008. By April of the year, an open house was held for the community. This volunteer-led effort has obtained numerous grants to restore the exterior envelope and return the building to active use. In 2011, volunteer hours totaled nearly 4,000 hours. They finished framing the north balcony, removed the 1935 stairs and finished the north stairway. Two grants from the Minnesota Historical Society were used to repair the bricks, replace or repair windows and paint metal. The first grant, in 2010 to 2011, repaired the north wall and the parapet on the west. The second grant, currently in progress, is repairing the west, south and east walls. Included in this grant will be the installation of new front doors that are 1900 era. A brick center column will be added to complete the 1900 appearance. Recently Hutchinson 3M gave GLOHAI a grant for performing arts such as Old Time Radio which will be presented Aug. 24 at 7 p.m., and Aug. 25 and 26 at 2 p.m. “3M likes to see their employees giving back to their communities in some form or fashion,” said Jan Johnson who is the HR training resource and community affairs person for 3M. “3M also looks at the number of volunteers involved from a retiree and/or full-time employment status.” A couple of people who have been vital to the support of the organization were Gretta Murray, from the Southwest Arts and Humanities Council in Marshall, and Richard Engan, an architect in Willmar. “Murray has been a support to us, financially and with ideas from the beginning,” said Darlene Koteinicki a board member of GLOHAI. “In April of 2008, we got a SMAHC grant for a bus to visit opera houses in Fairmont and St. James. We learned much from them about our building and about an organization,” she said. SMAHC also gave GLOHAI a grant in 2009 to pay for the south framing of the balcony. Engan did a re-use study for the city of Litchfield and the Opera House Historic Structure Report. The Minnesota Historical Society awarded 59 organizations from 31 counties a total of $3,879,343 in grants for fiscal year 2012. The grants were awarded to support projects of enduring value for the cause of history and historic preservation. GLOHAI received $208,298 to finish repairing the damaged exterior envelope of the Litchfield Opera House. “The need for this project is evident as the building envelope is experiencing disintegrating and spalling masonry, cracks in mortar joints and walls, and possible water intrusion. This project will restore the physical and visual integrity of the masonry envelope, and provide handsome and period appropriate entries into the building,” according to the Minnesota Historical Society. The benefits of this exterior undertaking were recently summed up by Tim Cook, GLOHAI president: “This project symbolizes a significant step forward in the process of restoring the Opera House to its original use and stateliness. Securing the envelope of the building allows us to move forward without the fear of water infiltration or further damage to the original 1900 brickwork, two of the primary reasons the building was at risk of demolition, in the first place. In 2013, we can safely and confidently, begin to shift focus to interior projects, such as the stage, lighting, flooring, bathrooms and other components that will allow the building to once again be used by the community as a gathering place and center for the arts.”

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