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The Litchfield Opera House wrap-around balcony is being reproduced using memories of people who remember the original opera house features and from old photographs. Three winters of work has slowly returned the 1990 building from an office building and community center into the performing arts venue it was designed to be more than a century ago. (Tribune photo by Ron Adams)

Litchfield Opera House balcony, stairways framed up

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These days, it's taking less and less imagination to see the Litchfield Opera House as, well, an opera house.

That's because more and more work by volunteers, over the past three winters, has slowly returned the 1900 building from an office building and community center into the performing arts venue it was designed to be more than a century ago.

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To celebrate the progress on the restoration

project, Greater Litchfield Opera House Association Inc., the non-profit corporation formed to save the historic building, is hosting an open house on

Saturday, May 1.

The event is scheduled from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. with live music by local performers all day. There will be scheduled performers on the stage each hour, with informal acoustical jam-sessions in the lobby. Folks are encouraged to bring their own instrument and play or sing. There will be food and refreshments available all day.

The Opera House, on the National Register of Historic Places since 1984, still looks the same on the outside, as the association is seeking grant funding for exterior and window renovations. On the inside, the balcony -- which was largely cut away when the building was renovated in 1935 -- has been restored, along with two curved staircases from the lobby up to the balcony. The lobby, along with the main floor and stage area, are now cleared and open.

Thanks for the memories

The association is intending to restore the lobby to what it looked like when the building was built in 1900. Correspondingly, the main floor will be put back to the 1935 renovation, according to Darlene Kotelnicki and Butch Schulte, association board members.

"We are trying to get the feel of 1900 back (in the lobby)," Schulte said during a recent press day at the Opera House. Old photos and the memories of senior citizens are helping the volunteers with the restoration efforts.

"The memories we have received from the senior citizens have helped us," Kotelnicki said. A woman who had first seen the building as a 10-year-old child recalled seeing the building all lit up at night, with 200 light bulbs glowing, told the association about her memories. "Those are the kinds of memories we collected."

A work in progress

The association officially took possession of the building in January 2008. It was owned by the city of Litchfield and used as the community building and city hall for years, until it was vacated in October 2002 when hazardous materials were discovered. The city built a new city hall across the parting lot and had been exploring the Opera House's future for several years.

The association purchased the building for a 1900 silver dollar. Volunteer crews worked five days a week from January to March 2008 on demolition of the old city offices, Schulte said. The demo work continued in the winter of 2009. Later in the winter of 2009 and this winter, the crew members turned their efforts to reconstructing the balcony, stairs and lobby. They used two portions of the ceilings of the old offices as the base for the rebuilt stage and recycled a significant amount of the lumber and other materials in their work.

While the building still looks like a construction zone, it is already being used for performances. The audience is simply asked to bring a chair, because there aren't any yet.

The expectation is that there will be seating at tables on the main floor of the building, with seats salvaged from Bernie Aaker Auditorium reused in the balcony.

The work is now turning toward the mechanicals, like heating, electrical and plumbing, which must be done by licensed contractors.

Fundraising continues

The association is continuing its fundraising campaign for members and donations and is seeking grants from the Minnesota Historical Society for window restoration and Legacy Act funding for exterior tuckpointing and architectural fees.

The non-profit association was formed by nine people, including Kotelnicki and Schulte, who had offered the city $100,000 less costs for the building.

"We were nine average people, saying we will not let this building go down," Kotelnicki said. "There was no other way to save it (but form the non-profit)."

For those looking to volunteer or donate to the opera house, contact the Greater Litchfield Opera House Association Inc. at litchopera@yahoo.com or send mail to the Greater Litchfield Opera House Association at 28 Third St. E., Litchfield, MN 55355-2184.

'She started talking'

The demolition and renovation efforts have revealed small pieces of what the 1900 building was, Schulte said. In the balcony, small pieces of the original cove ceiling remain. The original wallpaper is visible, showing the risers of a very steep stairway to the top of the balcony.

During that first winter, the workers caught only glimpses of what the Opera House once was as they were busy clearing the drywall and framing of old city offices, Schulte said.

But as the work progressed, the clutter was eliminated and the workers began to see the building in a different light. Schulte explained it like this: "The building started talking to us. Once she started talking, we could see the grace and elegance of what she was.

"She must have been a beautiful building."

Schulte sees the building as a space that is large enough, but not overwhelmingly large, for art, music, shows, wedding receptions and community events.

"This is going to be a special venue," he said.

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Gretchen Schlosser

Gretchen Schlosser is the public safety reporter, and writes about agriculture occasionally, for the West Central Tribune. She's been with the Tribune since 2006 and has 17 years of experience working in news, media and communications. 

(320) 214-4373
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