Staging a comeback

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The McGregor Historic Preservation Commission (MHPC) hopes to save, restore and reuse the former hardware store/Sullivan Opera House building, located on Main Street. The MHPC is currently forming a non-profit organization to fundraise and seek grants for the project. The group is also seeking volunteers to help with restoration efforts and to share ideas and history. (North Iowa Times file photo)

The once grand building at 252-­256 Main St. was built circa 1880. Over the years, the first floor held a number of businesses, selling crockery, menswear, confections and hardware.

T.J. Sullivan opened the Sullivan Opera House in 1905, and it remained operational into the 1930s.

T.J. Sullivan

Saving McGregor’s Sullivan Opera House an investment in the future


Submitted by the McGregor Historic Preservation Commission

The paint is chipped, its walls are cracked and it hasn’t been inhabited for nearly 20 years. But for historic preservationists looking over the old hardware store/opera house on Main Street in McGregor, the building has great economic and cultural potential. With the help of the community at large, saving, restoring and reusing the building could not only serve as a landmark of McGregor’s past, but also a key to its future.

The once grand building at 252-­256 Main St. was built circa 1880. Over the years, the first floor held a number of businesses, selling crockery, menswear, confections and hardware.

“This historic building could be saved and become a useful building in our community,” stated Michelle Pettit, McGregor Historic Preservation Commission member. “It has a wonderful history. It is on a vital location on Main Street and its rehabilitation would revitalize Main Street itself.”

Opera house a part of history

Timothy J. Sullivan, affectionately known as T.J., was an intelligent and notable visionary of the community. He bought the building in 1905 and had the Sullivan Opera House created just months later. McGregor had two other prior opera houses at different locations (The Atheneum from 1878 to 1889 and Bergman Opera House from 1897 to ­1903) that both unfortunately succumbed to fire. Civic boosters quickly recognized the correlation between good entertainment and attracting settlers, thus why Sullivan knew the entire city would benefit from building another opera house.

Opera houses ranked with general stores and schools as important buildings in the Midwest and, like others, the Sullivan Opera House provided unique services. Little, if any, opera was actually performed, as an opera house was a community entertainment and meeting hall.  

Sullivan hired Hugo Schick, of Schick & Roth, LaCrosse, one of the best-known architects of the northwest, to design the opera house in July 1905. (Schick also designed McGregor’s Alexander Hotel.) A.C. Boyle constructed the opera house in September of that year.

The Robert Lee Allen touring company performed the first show, “The Taming of the Shrew,” starring Margaret Ralph, on Dec. 15, 1905.

The Sullivan Opera House had theatrical shows, bands, traveling vaudeville shows, community meetings, McGregor High School class graduations, speakers and more. It served McGregor well into the late 1930s.

Building faces challenges

Although Sullivan practiced his aspiration to make a positive impact on his community well over 100 years ago, his vision is still a viable way of thinking about what can be done to ensure the betterment of the future of the McGregor area well into the 21st century.

The McGregor Historic Preservation Commission (MHPC) isn’t alone in their viewpoint. In 2013, Preservation Iowa listed the old hardware store/Sullivan Opera House as one of the seven most endangered properties in Iowa. The Most Endangered Property program was started in 1995 and was implemented to educate Iowans about the special buildings and historic sites that are gradually slipping away.

The large, rectangular brick building on Main Street has been vacant for nearly 20 years. Portions of the roof have weakened and some of the ground level flooring has collapsed. Broken windows and doors allowed the weather, as well as birds and other animals, to wreak havoc inside. 

In June 2013, the city of McGregor entered into a memorandum of agreement (MOA) with FEMA, the State Historical Society of Iowa and Iowa Homeland Security and Emergency Management Division. The purpose of the MOA was to mitigate adverse effects of the McGregor detention basins that would result from the flood protection mitigation project. The MOA gave the city the opportunity to acquire the Sullivan Opera House, bring the delinquent taxes current and do some minimal mothballing to stabilize the building from further deterioration.

Benefits to restoration

Despite the challenges that resulted from years of neglect, Preservation Iowa said the space is indeed a viable candidate for rehabilitation from an architectural viewpoint. In 2013, the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs’ Certified Local Government (CLG) program awarded a grant for the Sullivan Opera House Pre­Development Project, which included an architectural and engineering evaluation. The report came back favorably, with ideas on how to restore and convert the building into a space that would be beneficial for the community and beyond. Although those ideas are not set in stone, it allows for a broader perspective on what could be done.

From an economic development perspective, restoring the building is a good idea, said Christina (Pleggenkuhle) Dollhausen. A native of McGregor, she has volunteered to help with this project, lending her marketing background and 10-year experience with developing, promoting and operating a thriving restored opera house in the community of Stoughton, Wis. Dollhausen has seen first­hand the transformative power of what a historic, revitalized theater can do for an area’s economy. 

“By returning the opera house to productive use, the venue can spur economic revitalization throughout the businesses in the community—restaurants, hotels, retail—and add to the quality of life in the McGregor/Marquette/Prairie du Chien region at large,” Dollhausen said. “Creative, quality programming will bring audiences in from near and far.”

“From a marketing viewpoint, McGregor is a perfect location for a performing arts venue and could be the key element to making everything click in the area,” Dollhausen continued. “Folks that visit or live here know that it is a very special place and the river itself holds an enormous amount of power. So much has happened here, so much more can happen here. As with any project, it will certainly have skepticism and unforeseen obstacles along the way, but if the bigger picture is retained, rest assured, it will be an amazing project that will be the pride and future of the city.”

Saving the Sullivan

Saving the Sullivan is an elaborate and layered project that will need dedicated, forward-thinking people, a sharp focus, community support (money, time and talents) and a sequential plan of action (fundraising and grants) to get it rolling in the right direction. The city of McGregor has made great strides and now it is up to the community at large to move things forward. There are preservation and main street revitalization grants as well as tax incentive programs available for projects such as saving the Sullivan Opera House.

MHPC is going to start by establishing a non-­profit organization to begin a fundraising campaign, as well as using the 501c3 status to apply for and receive these grants. While the non-­profit is being formed, many volunteers will be needed for clearing out debris.

The plan is to clean the building up, fill in the collapsed floor and essentially rebuild it from the inside out. Once the opera house is restored, it will ultimately be used as a performance space to bring in quality, renowned musicians year-round and host school and community events, authors, speakers, conferences, ceremonies and possibly movies. The space will draw locals and tourists alike to the downtown and surrounding areas.  

“Time is of the essence. If we wait too much longer, there isn’t going to be a building worth saving,” said Duane Boelman, a MHPC member. “There is so much history hiding in there. It’s not going to be easy, it’s not going to be inexpensive. Raising the funds and the actual work can’t be done alone; it has to be looked at as a community resource. To save and re-use this landmark building as a basis for community renewal will depend on the interest and support of the community at large.”

Another benefit to getting this project underway is that even the restoration process itself could be a catalyst for the local economy, by hiring local contractors, certified electricians and plumbers.

The trickle down effect of the demolition of the former Holiday Shores Motel has decreased the foot traffic of tourists and overnight guests, but the restoration of this historic building could counteract that situation and increase the vitality of the downtown.  

The MHPC agrees that McGregor is essentially at a tipping point, noting: “Either we try to drum up interest and volunteers to revitalize the building, or we may see a continued downturn for businesses and real estate in the area. With the businesses in town that are currently sitting there empty, ready to be used, and other businesses not getting the foot traffic like before, a revitalization of this historic building could make all the difference.”

In a time when it’s more important than ever to hold onto and save things before they are gone, the MHPC hopes that the community recognizes how valuable it would be to save the Sullivan Opera House in order to use the historical building to brighten the future of the community. 

“In the spirit of T.J. Sullivan, we have to be visionaries, look beyond what is now to what it could be and what it could mean to the community,” the MHPC stated.

To learn more about volunteering and sharing interests, ideas and talents that could help the Sullivan Opera House project, like and comment on the ‘Save Our Sullivan” Facebook page, call the city of McGregor or email

The McGregor Historic Preservation Commission is eagerly looking for feedback, community and volunteer involvement and possible donor interest, and would also like to learn more of what people know about the history of the building itself.

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