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Darlington's opera house renovation moves to the fun phase

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DARLINGTON — The group restoring the historic two-story Driver Opera House building on Main Street in Darlington has completed almost all of the project’s most difficult tasks and is ready to move on to the fun part.

“Now is the time we’ve been waiting for: to really start the restoration of the opera house,” said Leona Havens, a director on the Driver Opera House Center for the Arts board.

But raising money to cover the growing costs of the project remains the board’s biggest task. So it’s going to open the opera house for some functions before the restoration is finished to help pay for it.

“I’m not a big theater person but I’m interested in keeping old buildings around and not losing them,” said the Opera House board’s president, Stan Krahenbuhl. “I’m from a construction background. I know if you build it, they will come.”

The opera house is on the second floor of a building that is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. It was built in 1883 by Josephus Driver, one of the first business owners of the Lafayette County seat. It has a raised stage and a seating capacity of about 225 people.

Lacking fixed seats, the opera house is multi-functional as a theater, concert venue and dance hall. Its unique versatility is expected to make it a draw as a dinner theater and set it apart from competing venues in Mineral Point, Stoughton and Elkader, Iowa.

So far almost all of the group’s work has focused on the first floor — during the first phase of the project that cost $1.8 million. That’s $400,000 over the anticipated costs for the first phase, according to Krahenbuhl.

The previously restored Driver Hotel and two retail stores — an art shop called “The Happy Palette” and meditative shop called “Be Still & Know” are in an adjacent building on West Ann Street. That building was purchased by the Opera House board about 18 months ago as part of the first phase project, Krahenbuhl said.

Flooding costs

Most of the added cost was due to problems with the foundation from decades of flooding and a sagging roof that had the building on the verge of collapsing, he said.

While a state Department of Natural Resources grant of $542,000 for the flood mitigation system — matched by $231,000 raised by the Driver Opera House board — is helping pay for some of the first-phase costs, a construction loan from a bank is covering the rest, Krahenbuhl said.

That doesn’t cover the additional $900,000 that Krahenbuhl says is needed to fix up the second-floor opera house. It has served as a storage area for first-floor retail shops since it was condemned shortly after the American Legion hosted a St. Patrick’s Day dance there in 1951.

Improvements slated for the final phase of the project include fixing the ceiling, updating a catering kitchen and adding second-floor bathrooms and an elevator.

Opening early

Krahenbuhl believes opening the opera house to some early functions will generate excitement from residents and businesses and that could lead to an increase in donations. That is key because no public funds are going to the project. Although city officials are supportive and applied for the DNR grant, no city funds have been given to the project, he said.

“When you put in a center like that, it brings in enough people to really boost your bars, restaurants, your hotels, whatever,” he said.

“So as long as we make it safe, we’re grandfathered in to use it the way it was. We will be doing stuff as the weather allows us to do it because it’s not heated, it’s not air conditioned and there’s no restrooms on the second floor yet.”

Krahenbuhl has no doubts that the opera house will be busy once it officially opens. He based his expectations on the success of a opera house in Elkader, Iowa. Located just southwest of Prairie du Chien, it has a population of 1,200 people and is plagued by flooding problems because the Turkey River splits the village.

“Just like what we are doing, they restored their theater and they got people coming from all over the Midwest. People are calling them asking about when they can come practice there. So there’s interest. Plus, we already have a very vibrant acting community that likes to put on plays and things like that.”

First floor shines

The building already has the look of success.

Outside, the original cream city brick exterior facade — made from clay found in the Milwaukee area — is looking like it did when the building first opened.

Inside, the interior walls for the retail shops and first-floor entrance to the second-floor opera house are painted in the original color schemes.

The Pins and Pieces Quilt Shop has already opened in retail space on the first floor of the Main Street side. There is space on the West Ann Street side for one or two more shops.

It’s also one of the most flood-proof buildings in Darlington. Restored in the mode of a bathtub, the building sits over a filled-in basement and on top of concrete that is two feet thick, Krahenbuhl said.

“The reason for that much concrete is that if we get that 100-year flood, it’s believed that the building would float like a ship. The floor is a counterweight,” he said.

Pins and Pieces Quilt Shop’s old location was also on Main Street but owner Heidi Brenum says that’s about all it has in common with the new shop. Her usable square footage for floor space has doubled at the new shop, the building has a better flood mitigation system and the location is drawing more customers, according to Brenum.

Plus, its a homecoming of sorts for the store that she bought from Elaine Benedict 10 years ago. “Back in the 1960s and 70s, Elaine had her dry goods store. They sold office supplies and men’s clothes and kids and women’s clothes over there. They were spread all over but the fabric she sold was here. Then she downsized and moved down the street with a friend,” she said.

The owner of The Happy Palette said moving her shop there from Platteville has been therapeutic for her and her customers. Besides selling her own artwork and craftwork from others who live in the area, owner Kate Bausch also teaches classes there.

“I knew that people needed it here. A lot of people just need to be creative, they need to have fun, they need to meet other people,” she said.


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Rob Schultz has won multiple writing awards at the state and national levels and covers an array of topics for the Wisconsin State Journal in south-central and southwestern Wisconsin.

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