Winston Churchill was referring to the bombed House of Commons when he said, “We shape our buildings, and, afterward, our buildings shape us,” but he really could've been speaking about any venerable, historic, character-filled edifice.
Having occasion to cover the 17th annual Opera House Gala Saturday night led me to research the St. James Opera House--and why so many people care so much about restoring the “grand lady”--and I've concluded that it's highly necessary to save old buildings like the opera house.
My favorite vacation spot is Charleston, S.C., and the city is arguably most famous for preservation of historic buildings. It's been at the preservation game longer--and executed it better--than just about anywhere else.
One of my favorite things about Chicago, where I lived for a couple years while in graduate school at DePaul University, is the mix between the old and the new buildings. You can walk past buildings built five years ago, and then buildings built 105 years ago, all in the space of the same block.
My point is that historical preservation of buildings is important, it draws people into a city, and it serves as a source of civic pride for residents.
Anne Sorensen, who has been deeply involved with the opera house restoration for many years, said, “Since so many of our old buildings are gone, we knew we needed to save (the opera house).”
The Park Hotel/Hospital was demolished in 1962, and the Armstrong School--which “was so beautiful, on a little hill”--met the wrecking ball in 1976, she said. Now, the Watonwan County Courthouse and the opera house are the only two historic buildings left in town.
The Opera House, designed in the Commercial Queen Anne architectural style of the period, opened in November 1892--years before St. James formally became a city! It hosted traveling shows, rallies, and ceremonies of all kinds.
People came from all over the Midwest via trains to see shows there and stay in the hotel that is now Park Apartments, Sorensen said. In the early 1900s, the space was used for graduation ceremonies and community programs, and then--beginning in the 1920s--it was a site for meetings, dances, basketball games, and roller skating.
In 1950, however, the opera house was effectively placed into a coma; the upper level windows were boarded up, access to the second floor was cut off, the lower areas were covered in light brick, the building was painted white, and a new entrance on the front corner completed the literal white-washing of the grand lady, Sorensen said. It was only in the mid-90s that the building was granted a reprieve and brought out of its long slumber by the restoration committee.
The board now officially owns the building and operates a 501 (c) (3) non-profit dedicated to refurnishing the structure. The ultimate goal is to turn it into a community building, where all sorts of events can be conducted.
Page 2 of 2 - “Someday, we'd like to have our opera gala in the opera house,” Sorensen said. She estimated that they likely need another $2 million to finish the project.
Linda Hackett, co-chair of the committee board, added that they plan to reinsert the grand staircase, which was removed when the opera house was gutted in 1950.
The first chair of the restoration committee was Phyllis Conway, and her husband, Jack, also served as chair following her tenure. He said that when people see the opera house, they fall in love with the space almost immediately--and he was no exception.
“I thought, this is a wonderful facility that people took a lot of pride in,” said Conway, who moved to St. James in 1984 to become superintendent of schools. “It (had been) a center of social activities, and it was a shame to see it in the (state) it was in.”
Likewise, engineers in the mid-90s also concluded the building needed to be saved, and they all deemed it structurally sound, he said. He does, however, wish that more people would contribute to the restoration.
“The committee has been a dedicated group, and they have a dream,” he said. “It will become the center of the community again.”