Litchfield undergoing cultural revival with restoration of Opera House
The Litchfield Opera House is in the midst of a decades-long renovation to restore it to its original early 1900s splendor.
LITCHFIELD — The city of Litchfield is inviting you to the opera, or at least to see the restored grandeur of its opera house downtown.
The Litchfield Opera House is one of the cornerstones of the city 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 grandest opera house west of the Mississippi when it was built,” said facilities coordinator Connie Lies.
The building is constructed entirely of three-course brick, meaning there are three layers of interwoven brick. There is no wood structure supporting the building, but some steel was used, which Lies noted was “extremely unusual for the time.”
“When the building was built — 1900, 1900, remember that — it had 360-some electric lights when most places had no clue what electric was,” Lies said. “It was all-electric from the day it was built, which is quite phenomenal. The city 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 the major actors and opera singers of the time, “because it was the greatest one” in the area, Lies said — until the 1920s when vaudeville was replaced by talking pictures. The building still saw some use after that, but not as often.
“The thing was, you could get on a train in Minneapolis-St. Paul, you could come out here — it took a little over an hour — for a day excursion,” she said. “ ... They would come to the theater and then get back on the train and go home, sort of like day destinations now.”
The building was almost destroyed twice. The first time it was salvaged due to the Great Depression, and the second time due to its historical significance in the 2000s.
The building renovation and restoration work that began in 2008 continues to this day.
Historically, the Litchfield Opera House was used as a meeting place for important events, such as exhibiting Thomas Edison’s phonograph, establishing the Rural Electric Association — the first in the nation — and meeting with state and national politicians.
It has been home to the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars; an induction center for World War II, Korea and Vietnam; and served as a training center before the Litchfield armory was built. In fact, there was a shooting gallery in the basement, and the World War II-era restrooms and lockers are still in the basement.
It was also used as an entertainment venue for sports, plays and concerts, and for community education classes.
The opera house has also hosted a number of weddings, funerals, graduations and other important events throughout the years. Today, the building is the largest venue in town available to rent, and the Greater Litchfield Opera House Association hopes to continue its legacy.
WPA restoration in 1935
In the 1930s, the opera house roof had a leak and the ornate plaster ceilings had fallen. The entire building was in rough shape after decades of limited use.
“But, there was a depression. There wasn’t any money to tear it down, but there was WPA (Works Progress Administration) money to fix it up,” Lies said.
And so, the building was completely gutted and redone in 1935.
Pre-1935, the main 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 in that era.
The original structure lacked a basement, but it was determined the building needed the structural support, and so Bert Thulin was contracted in 1935 to construct one.
“The basement was quite an engineering feat,” Lies said.
Thulin would go into the crawl space below the building and blow out a section at a time with dynamite, hauling away the dirt in a wheelbarrow. He poured the concrete floor one three-foot section at a time.
“They never moved the building, not a stitch,” Lies said, noting Thulin’s technique was unusual for the time and the concrete has no cracks to this day. “We have engineers who come here to see what Bert built and how you would do a building of this size without causing any damage to it and put a basement under it.”
Grandeur lost to time
By the late 1960s, the opera house had lost much of its grandeur. The main space had been eaten up by offices, windows had been covered by pink aluminum beadboard, the stairs in the lobby were hidden behind walls, and the stage and balcony had been torn out with just a small portion of the balcony remaining.
By 2000, the building was no longer being used and was in significant disrepair, floors and walls covered in moldy carpeting and wallpaper.
The discussion of what to do with the building went on for years. An eventual reuse study resulted in a split, between those believing there was no use for the building and others who wanted it restored.
A small group of people came forward and offered to purchase the building for $100,000, less the cost of demolition — or $99,000.
“They offered a 1900 silver dollar with the stipulation and understanding that the rest of the offered amount would be plowed into the building to be used by the public,” Lies said.
The group formed the nonprofit Greater Litchfield Opera House Association, purchased the building and began work on it in 2008.
Putting in long hours
The association began with the outside of the building — replacing windows, installing doors closer to original doors of 1900, and removing the salmon-colored aluminum that hid windows.
Work on the lobby began in 2011, tearing out walls and revealing the original character.
Work underway to install new balusters, posts and treads for the lobby staircases will cost approximately $60,000, according to Lies.
The new windows in the lobby are replicas of the windows from 1900, and it has five chandeliers — three originals and two replicas.
The balcony has been reinstalled but is unfinished. The back part of the balcony original to 1900 still has to be fixed, and the railings have to be replaced as it is currently not possible to see the stage if sitting.
Lies stated the building still has perfect acoustics.
“ ... It is just fantastic, the sound up there,” she said of the balcony. “Every whisper on the stage — you can hear it. ... I’m just excited that sometime we will have it open for people to have that experience.”
Photos on display show historical events that took place in the building. There is a photo of a funeral for a senator, and another of the annual meeting of the rural electric cooperative shareholders.
All the original light fixtures for the building were found in the basement, although they had been painted over many times. Lies’ husband spent months cleaning them up, even using a dental pick to get paint out of the fixtures' grooves.
The floor of the opera house has been refinished and is due for another polishing, but that will not take place until all the construction work is complete, according to Lies.
The Greater Litchfield Opera House Association received a generous donation of $17,000 worth of velvet to update the curtains throughout the building, and a woman has agreed to sew them at a reasonable rate.
The stage is currently being rebuilt to be up to code.
“It’s usable — it’s not dangerous — but it’s not theater compliant,” Lies said, noting new velvet drapes were purchased last year with a grant from the Southwest Minnesota Arts Council.
New panels on the front of the stage will be resemble the original panels in 1900, she added.
The stage also echoes. The SMAC grant will help to upgrade both the sound and the lighting for the stage, from manual to computer-controlled.
A member of the opera house association board is a retired professional sound and lighting person who retired to Litchfield and had worked with artists such as Adele, Prince and Lori Line.
“We have people who are well-suited to being on the board,” she said, noting there is a master finish carpenter, a sound and lighting technician and an actress on the board, as well as an editor, retired teacher, bank employee and an accountant.
“A lot of places in small towns, they just can’t get that quality board that can really help round things out. We really see the effects of having that talent within ourselves to draw from.”
Future work on the building is estimated to be about $400,000. The association received a $100,000 Legacy grant, but the group is largely relying on volunteers to do much of the work. Lies noted somebody is usually working at the opera house 30 to 40 hours per week.