Group meets to begin ‘staging a comeback’ of McGregor’s Sullivan Opera House

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A group of around a dozen people met last week to begin “staging a comeback” of McGregor’s Sullivan Opera House (hardware store). The goal was to identify actions that can be taken now to jump-start the building’s restoration, including working to form a non-profit, starting to clean up the building and holding an event to drum up interest in the project. (NIT file photo)

Located at 252-256 Main St., the original building was constructed in 1877 and known as the Munson Block. T.J. Sullivan purchased the building in 1905 and, feeling there was a need for an opera house in the community, quickly remodeled the second floor to become the Sullivan Opera House.

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times Editor

A group of around a dozen people met last week to begin “staging a comeback” of McGregor’s Sullivan Opera House (hardware store). The goal was to identify actions that can be taken now to jump-start the building’s restoration, including working to form a non-profit, starting to clean up the building and holding an event to drum up interest in the project.

Located at 252-256 Main St., the original building was constructed in 1877 and known as the Munson Block, for F.F. Munson. The architect was E.W.H. Jacobs, who was also the architect of the First Savings Bank (now the art center), the Masonic Building, the old city hall, the Ramage Home (Stauer House), the county jail in Elkader and several other buildings. Over the years, the first floor held several businesses, selling crockery, menswear, confections and hardware.

Timothy J. (T.J.) Sullivan purchased the building in 1905 and, feeling there was a need for an opera house in the community, quickly remodeled the second floor to become the Sullivan Opera House. He hired the well-known architect Hugo Schick, of Schick and Roth, La Crosse, to design the opera house, while A.C. Boyle constructed it. The opera house operated into the late 1930s to 1940s, hosting not just shows but bands, meetings, graduations, speakers and more.

In 1949, the Sullivan family sold the building to the Lange family, who ran the lower level as a hardware store and converted the upper level to apartments. Several years ago, the city of McGregor took over ownership of the building, which has been empty for nearly 20 years. During that time, parts of the roof have weakened and some of the ground level floor has collapsed. Broken windows and doors have allowed the elements, as well as birds and other animals, to damage the interior.

In 2013, the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs’ Certified Local Government (CLG) program awarded a grant for the Sullivan Opera House Pre­-Development Project, which included an architectural and engineering evaluation, outlining restoration possibilities and potential uses for the building. Plans are also in the works to hopefully remove asbestos.

The group, which includes members of the McGregor Historic Preservation Commission, and plans to go by the name “Friends of the McGregor Sullivan Opera House,” hopes to build upon that work.

“The best chance to save the building is to return it to its original use,” said Duane Boelman, a member of the group as well as the historic preservation commission. “We can’t just sit back and have nothing happen; we want to organize and get some things done.”

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. 

“It can be a source of encouragement,” noted Christina (Pleggenkuhle) Dollhausen, a McGregor native who has 10 years of experience developing, promoting and operating a restored opera house in Stoughton, Wis. She’s volunteered to help with the project.

“I’ve learned something along the way, and I want to give back,” she said. “I know what a transformation it can make, what it can do for a community. It helped the whole town (Stoughton).”

Members of the group noted that some people may question the need for an opera house in McGregor, with the Elkader Opera House so close.

“It was originally used for graduations, lectures and more. It had that versatility,” said Michelle Pettit, also a member of the historic preservation commission, noting that today’s space is no different. “It could be used for weddings, dances or meetings. This is a much more versatile space.”

Uses for the building’s lower level are still undetermined, but could include commercial space or an expansion of the McGregor Historical Museum.

Right now, the group is working to form a 501c3 so it can begin fundraising and applying for grants. A clean-up day will be held Saturday, July 16, to remove debris from the second floor. An event is planned for Saturday, Sept. 24, at 11 a.m., at McGregor’s Landing, during which Richard Poole, a professor of speech at Briar Cliff University, will speak about the history of opera houses in Iowa. 

“It’s an amazing space and an amazing building,” Boelman said of the opera house. “As we rip stuff out, we’ll learn a lot.”

“Once the fixing starts happening, people will see the future,” Dollhausen stated.

Until then, people need to think like T.J. Sullivan, Boelman said: “He could always see opportunities through his life. We would call him an entrepreneur. Let’s hope his spirit lives on and inspires us to do great things.”

For those who would like to contribute or get involved with “staging a comeback” of the Sullivan Opera House, contact saveoursullivan@gmail.com or visit the “Save Our Sullivan Opera House, McGregor, Iowa” Facebook page.

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