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Litchfield Opera House facts for kids

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Litchfield Opera House
Litchfield Opera House 2015.jpg
The Litchfield Opera House from the northwest
Location 126 N. Marshall Ave., Litchfield, Minnesota
Area less than one acre
Built 1900 (1900)
Built by N.P. Franzen
Architect W.T. Towner
Architectural style Renaissance
NRHP reference No. 84000019
Added to NRHP October 4, 1984

In the early days of Litchfield, a wooden City Hall building stood where the Opera House stands today at the corner of Marshall Avenue and Second Street (136 North Marshall Avenue). The “town hall”, as it was called, was built in the fall of 1874 by the city and the Masons to be used conjointly as a city meeting place and the Mason’s Golden Fleece Lodge. It was twenty-six feet wide, seventy-two feet long and two stories high. The Masons used the upstairs. In 1875, Reuben S. Hershey & Co. owned the lot. On February 1, 1878, women’s rights leader Susan B. Anthony spoke at the hall for the benefit of the library association. They made a whopping $10 that night from audience donations. Susan was touring the country campaigning for the National Woman Suffrage Association’s promotion of a federal woman’s suffrage amendment. (Voting rights for women.) After much urging from the local newspapers in the late 1890s, the city finally decided to get rid of the old building and put up a new brick “Opera House”.

The new Litchfield Opera House was designed by architect William T. Towner and built in late 1900 with Ames Brickyard Litchfield bricks by N.P. Franzen. Upstairs at the old fire hall building at 30 Second Street West filled in as the city’s town hall for a short time. The Opera House building is an example of “Renaissance Revival” architecture. Opening night was Thursday, November 8, 1900. The William Owens’ traveling troupe performed The Marble Heart by Charles Selby that night. The play was also known as “The Sculptor’s Dream”. The play tells the story of a Greek sculptor, reincarnated as a Frenchman, whose marble sculptures eventually come to life right before his eyes. It also happened to be the last play John Wilkes Booth performed in before he assassinated Abraham Lincoln.

Two years later, the Opera House staged Shakespeare’s Othello. In 1901, this article ran in one of our Litchfield newspapers: “Sanford Dodge, the well-known romantic actor, and tragedian, will play an engagement at the Opera House beginning Oct. 21. His production of ‘Virginius’ is very elaborate and has been pronounced by good authorities to be one of the best-acted tragedies of modern stage. There are many fine bursts of poetry in the play which are introduced with great dramatic propriety and skill. It is full of high passion with deep pathos making it intensely interesting and impressive throughout. This will be a notable event for our community.”

Besides operas and performances, the Opera House housed town meetings, elections, military recruitments, and other government functions. In 1912, the building was managed by Charles Andress Brasie. From 1900 to 1924, operas, plays, dances and band concerts were held in the building. But in October of 1917, the United Theatres Company, headed by Bart Foster, leased the building to show movies and stage vaudeville shows. Edwin J. Gates and Floyd Rothlisberger leased the building in May of 1920 to show movies also. Finally, David T. Hopson, who owned the Unique Theater downtown, had enough and appealed to the city to stop being his competition. When they didn’t listen, he sold the Unique. A lawyer’s wife, Marion Rhoda (Mrs. Ernest Wells) Campbell, donated the huge red velvet curtain that had hung on the stage at the Opera House. She is also credited with saving the Bank of Litchfield by depositing a huge sum of money when it was on the brink of failure. In November of 1920, Gates and Rothlisberger gave up their lease on the building and it went back to being used for local plays, band concerts, dances, roller skating, non-school basketball games, and city meetings. The Opera House was remodeled in 1935 to be used exclusively as the city’s offices and Community Building and that’s the name most people have always known it by, not the “Opera House”.

In 1962, part of the back of the building was turned into an extended art classroom for the high school. The police department and mayor’s office were moved from over the old fire hall to the front of the building in April of 1963. In the front were offices, but the back had a large gymnasium with a stage. Because the sidewalks in town were so bad, kids went to the Community Building for free roller-skating, usually in the basement. You had to provide your own skates. They also went to the Community Building for gun training, club meetings, or for a free lunch during REA Days. Teen dances were held in the Community Building also.

The Opera House was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983 for its “significance to the community”. The city offices were in the building for a long time, but the building was eventually abandoned because of mold problems in 2002. The city moved its offices from the building to trailers in the parking lot. A new city hall was built next door at 126 North Marshall Avenue. In the spring of 2003, the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota named it to its list of Minnesota’s ten most endangered historic properties. The building then was purchased by the Greater Litchfield Opera House Association Inc. on January 4, 2008 and now continues to serve the community of Litchfield. It is run by a dedicated group of volunteers with its president as Connie Lies.

Litchfield’s friend and champion Darlene Kotelnicki said, “The Greater Litchfield Opera House Assn., Inc. was formed in Sept. 2007 and came to the Litchfield City Council later that month. We offered to buy the building for $100,000 minus the $65,000 it would cost the city to demo it. We asked for a 10-year interest-free contract for deed for the balance. Two weeks (later), the city had a counteroffer: purchased price $100,000 and they would accept $1 for payment with the understanding the balance ($99,999) be put into the building for the community. I shook Mayor Madson’s hand and gave him a 1900 silver dollar (which is now framed in City Hall). City Administrator Bruce Miller told me we would not get the papers signed until Jan. 2008 for two reasons. One was for tax purposes.... we would have one less year of taxes and that would help our organization. Two, we would need three months to get our organization formed BEFORE we started with the building! That was some if the best advice ever. Our first board was just average citizens with a firm desire to save the building: Mickey Scullard, Chuck Pease, Milfred Smith, Dave Lindberg, Mary Root, Butch Schulte, Kathy Bren, Richard Pennertz, and myself. Many have served since, but these nine average people said, ‘yes’ to serving on a board for an issue that the majority of the community said would fail!”

The building is available for rental for parties, weddings, dinners, funeral, bar mitzvahs, and other personal events.

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