Potential uses for opera house building outlined

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Potential uses for the former Sullivan Opera House (hardware store) building in McGregor include expansion of the McGregor Historical Museum, creation of retail spaces and formation of second-level apartments or a community space. (Photos by Audrey Posten)

One feature that is noticeable from the building’s rear, but hardly seen from the front, is a triangular structure on the roof. It runs above the once-open area of the second floor and was likely used as a large girder, Steinmetz said. It lends to the suspicion that the opera house portion of the building was not original to the structure.

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times Editor

“Aside from the first floor, the building’s in sound condition. It’s not beyond repair,” explained architect Doug Steinmetz of the former Sullivan Opera House (hardware store) building in McGregor. “There’s no reason it couldn’t be repaired with time and money.”

Steinmetz has advised the city and historic preservation committee throughout the past year—since the city received a $12,500 grant in Jan. 2014 from the Iowa Dept. of Cultural Affairs’ Certified Local Government (CLG) program—regarding the possible rehabilitation of the building through the exploration of potential uses. On May 6, Steinmetz provided an overview of what he’s learned and the plans created to-date.

The biggest structural issue with the building, said Steinmetz, is the first floor, which has begun to cave into the basement. If the building was to be rehabilitated, the basement would have to be filled in, he noted.

Steinmetz said changes over the years have left just a “minimal amount of surviving interior historic fabric.” While the store frame remains on the first floor, the second level, which was once home to the theater/ballroom of the Sullivan Opera House, was converted to four apartments, leaving little resemblance to what it once was.

“There are some bits and pieces that give clues to what was there,” he said, noting that, as work progresses, crews will look for additional clues. “Construction will reveal ghosts.”

Some of the building’s historic elements do remain, though, Steinmetz said, especially on the front of the building.

“The primary facade is largely intact,” he said, referencing architectural elements like the window openings, decorative window hoods, metal cornices and original storefront opening that remain. “Those are all valuable as it’s redeveloped. They can be used to take the building back to its original glory. If you look closely, you can see how refined the details are.”

The rear of the building also provides good information, Steinmetz said, but is not in such good shape.

One feature that is noticeable from the building’s rear, but hardly seen from the front, is a triangular structure on the roof. It runs above the once-open area of the second floor and was likely used as a large girder, Steinmetz said.

“It’s not something you would see in the 1800s, but resembles more closely the construction of the early 1900s,” he explained. “It would allow space in the theater to have fewer columns. There are only three, which is pretty minimal for such a large span.”

This “mystery triangle,” he mentioned, lends to the suspicion that the opera house portion of the building was not original to the structure. Reference has been made to such in an article that was discovered, he noted. It’s also not visible in early photos.

“We need to put together a better timeline [of the building], “ Steinmetz said, adding that the opera house was likely “shoehorned in later to meet the changing needs of the community. It’s odd that there are windows backstage.”

Steinmetz said several development options have been formed for the space. One includes expanding the neighboring McGregor Historical Museum into the western-most bay of the first floor, allowing the museum to display more of its collection. The remaining two spaces on that level would be converted to commercial use, with the middle section opening to the street and the other having entrances on both the front and east side. If the museum expansion did not take place, that section would also be used as a commercial space.

On the second floor, Steinmentz said one option would involve creating a community space with a kitchen, meeting room and a large open area for either a conference room or performance space. The other option for the second floor, he said, would convert the area into four apartments—two larger and two smaller units. The front two apartments would have lofts, he said, because the ceiling slope adds extra height there.

Outside, Steinmetz said a deck could be added out back. If an entrance is created on the building’s east side, the east yard could be developed into a landscaped walkway, allowing people to enter the building from behind, where there’s the potential to form a 15-space parking lot across the storm sewer.

While it might seem easier to replace many aspects in the building, Steinmetz said that’s not the point of historic rehabilitation. 

“You want to protect, preserve and maintain historic integrity,” he said.

Steinmetz estimated the first step of rehabbing the building—the life safety phase—would cost around $341,000. Work on the building envelope, infrastructure and immediate site work would run an estimated $2,738,000. Converting the second floor to apartments would cost around $1,500,000 while an assembly space would be around $2,000,000.

“It’s all about marketing the building,” Steinmetz said. “You need to be in the position to get tax credits.”

That means a private entity would have to take over. If finding that person or group takes time, Steinmetz said the building won’t be beyond repair.

“As long as there’s some energy put into monitoring it, it could be good for some time,” he explained. “The first floor may finish collapsing, but that wouldn’t take the rest down. You just need to watch it because it’s going to change.”

“It appears daunting, but it’s not impossible,” added McGregor City Administrator Lynette Sander following the presentation. “It will take vision, perseverance and money.”

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