Sullivan Opera House event advocates for preservation efforts

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Richard Poole was one of the speakers at an event held Saturday at Old Man River in McGregor that helped raise awareness for the importance of community historic preservation efforts. (Photo by Audrey Posten)

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times Editor

An event held Saturday at Old Man River in McGregor, featuring both local speakers and those from around the state, helped raise awareness for the importance of community historic preservation efforts, especially as a group works to save and restore McGregor’s Sullivan Opera House.

Earlier this year, efforts got underway to begin “staging a comeback” of the opera house (old hardware store), located in downtown McGregor. The goal is to identify actions that can be taken now to jump-start the building’s restoration, including working to form a non-profit, seeking donations and starting to clean up the building. Group members, many of whom are also members of the McGregor Historic Preservation Commission, have also sifted through old photos, newspaper articles and other accounts that shed light on the opera house’s history.

The Sullivan was actually the third, and final, opera house constructed in McGregor over the years. Thanks in large part to the railroads that allowed acts to more easily travel, opera houses proliferated throughout the country between 1870 and 1920, said Richard Poole, a professor at Briar Cliff University who spoke at the event about “Tent Repertoire, Circle Stock, Airdromes and Opera Houses: Gone But Not Forgotten.” 

Opera houses held not just shows, Poole shared, but meetings, dances, graduations and more. McGregor’s first opera house, the Boyle Opera House, was much the same way, noted Duane Boelman, a member of the opera house group and historic preservation commission as well as a speaker at the event. Built by Henry Boyle in 1873 where the post office currently stands, the Boyle operated until 1878, when the building was sold to Thomas Arnold and renamed The Athenaeum. It operated until 1896, when it was destroyed by fire.

McGregor went without an opera house until 1898, continued Boelman, when the Bergman Opera House was built. The Bergman brothers constructed the three-story building at what is now 220-224 Main St. (American Family Insurance and North Iowa Times). The opera house was on the third floor while the first floor contained Kramer’s Dry Goods. It “was modern in all respects,” hosting plays, musical performances and lectures, Boelman said. It operated until 1903, when the third floor was destroyed by a fire. The building still stands as a two-story structure.

With the loss of the Bergman, the city again went without an opera house for two years. In 1905, T.J. Sullivan opened the Sullivan Opera House on the upper level of the building at 252-254 Main St., which was built in 1877 as the Munson Block. The lower level, over the years, housed hardware and crockery businesses. Into the 1940s, the opera house held shows, musical performances, graduations, lectures, meetings, dances and roller skating.

Boelman said the Sullivan’s decrease in usage has been partly attributed to the McGregor High School building an auditorium that could hold graduations and productions that were before held at the opera house. Poole said the rise of cinema, as well as the proliferation of automobiles, allowing people to travel out of town for entertainment, also contributed to the decline of opera houses around the country.

“They’re gone but not forgotten,” Poole said. “They’re gone but being brought back.”

“Although tattered, it still stands,” said Boelman of the Sullivan.

The “Friends of the McGregor Sullivan Opera House” group is advocating that the building’s second floor be restored to its former use as an opera house, Boelman said. The lower level could entail several small retail units, and even an expansion of the neighboring McGregor Historical Museum.

Restoring the opera house to its former glory will benefit the community in several ways, Boelman said. Not only will a historic building be saved, but it will work to draw people down Main Street, toward the McGregor Historical Museum, McGregor Public Library and other current and potential businesses. Now, it’s often a deterrent. 

Similar restoration efforts have brought renewed life to the downtowns in both Stoughton, Wis., and Mason City. For 20 years, the Stoughton community worked to restore the Stoughton Opera House. Built in 1901, it opened again in 2001. Christina (Pleggenkuhle) Dollhausen, a McGregor native, has spent the last 10 years developing, promoting and operating the restored opera house. She’s volunteered to help with the Sullivan project and spoke at Saturday’s event.

“I felt like it was a calling for me because of what I’ve learned,” she said. “Through trial and error, we developed a business model that was successful. I’ve seen first-hand what a well-run theater can do for a community.”

Of the thousands of tickets sold annually for shows at the Stoughton Opera House, Dollhausen said patrons spend $26 beyond that ticket in the surrounding community, on things like meals.

“Four new restaurants have opened, store fronts are filled, hotels are filled and art galleries are thriving,” she stated. “With a unified vision, hard work and the community coming together, the Sullivan Opera House can also be a success story. There’s so much power in that river, and the Sullivan was built on that power. People know McGregor is a special place and they want to come back.”

“There will be obstacles, but the wheel doesn’t have to be invented,” Dollhausen added. “If you give now, it will benefit the people who come after you.”

Pat Schultz and Scott Borcherding, who played a role in restoring the historic Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Park Inn and Hotel in Mason City, also spoke at the event, sharing how the 27-room boutique hotel with a conference ballroom has revitalized downtown Mason City.

Since its opening in 2011, Schultz said 48,000 people have stayed at the hotel. Each of those people drops an additional $125 to $150 in Mason City, she noted.

“The success has been enormous,” she said. “There are more people downtown and a couple of new businesses.”

“You have to have something that people want to see, for both visitors and performers,” Borcherding added. “That trickles down to the shops, restaurants and coffee shops.”

“The speakers have made it obvious that restoring a building, and making it the center of a town, can restore a town and bring tourism back,” said Maureen Wild, historic preservation and opera house group member. “McGregor could use a boost.”

The speakers gave advice on how to go about the restoration efforts, as well, some of which the Sullivan group is already working toward.

“One of the first steps is knowing as much as you can about the building in advance,” Schultz said. 

She and Borcherding mentioned it’s also important to develop a plan for the future, learn the historic preservation guidelines, find a good grant writer(s) and hire strong architectural and construction teams, while also firming up the budget and adding some contingencies.

Gary Goyette, with the Clayton County Historic Preservation Commission, agreed: “Have research done and have a plan. Have people who know what they’re doing and have instructions. Don’t just stop with getting the job done. Think, ‘What do I have to do to keep it at the level it was restored to?’”

Goyette said the Sullivan group has already done a great job by getting the community involved.

“To get going and off the ground, you have to get the community involved,” he explained. “Projects are time consuming, and it takes tons of hours.”

Getting the word out about the project is key, too, shared the speakers.

“Keep telling your story,” Schultz said.

Boelman said the group is open to feedback from the community, as well as any other ideas for the space.

“We’re hoping to get it going, and we’re hoping for help,” he said. “The main thing is not to lose it. We would lose a whole chunk of downtown. It’s bad the way it is, but it would be worse if it was gone. If we save the Sullivan, the Sullivan could easily save McGregor.”

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