Setting the Stage: Delphi Opera House takes Prize

At Indiana Landmarks’ Rescue Party on April 29, Delphi Preservation Society will take home the Cook Cup for Outstanding Restoration for its decades-spanning restoration of the city’s opera house.

When Delphi’s historic Hamilton Street bridge collapsed in 1995, demolished by a utility truck that exceeded the posted weight limit, the loss also dealt a heavy blow to the newly formed Delphi Preservation Society (DPS). The year-old nonprofit had advocated saving the endangered iron bridge before the accident. In the town’s settlement with the utility, DPS received some money and decided to make lemonade. It bought the Delphi Opera House, the most prominent commercial building on the courthouse square, and began a 20-year reclamation that won the group the 2017 Cook Cup for Outstanding Restoration from Indiana Landmarks.

We will present the big silver cup and a video at our annual Rescue Party on April 29. The Delphi Opera House opened with a ball in 1865 celebrating the return of Civil War soldiers. When DPS bought the structure in 1996, the theater had been shuttered for more than 80 years, closed by the fire marshal. From the beginning, DPS aimed to revitalize downtown as well as the opera house.

Photograph by Andrew W. Wolever of the east side of the courthouse square taken in the late 1870s.

When DPS acquired it in 1996, roof leaks left the third-floor theater ceiling a soggy, collapsing mess. Shipping crates and discarded merchandise filled the hall and pigeons roosted on the balcony rail—or what was left of it. Only seven of the 68 cast-iron balusters remained. The main scissor truss slipped from its pocket, coming to rest on the stage proscenium. The second floor space was mostly unusable. Volunteers did the early dirty work renovating the retail bays and tearing out the decayed opera house ceiling.

Beginning in 2000, DPS reinforced the ceiling truss, restored the main façade, and recruited an artist to open a gallery in one of the retail bays. “A 2005 visioning task force took Saturday trips to other restored opera houses. Those trips were inspiring and we learned a lot,” says Anita Werling, former DPS president and full-time volunteer who spearheaded the restoration. “Two of us went to the League of Historic American Theaters conference in Newberry, South Carolina, a place very similar to Delphi, where we learned how to make the opera house a revitalization tool for the community,” she adds.

Total restoration of the opera house was the centerpiece of Delphi’s successful $20 million Stellar Communities application in 2012. From that life-changing award, DPS received $2.6 million matching grant that funded the restoration of the historic structure and construction of a three-story addition across the back of the building for accessible restrooms, an elevator, fire stairs, a banquet room, catering kitchen, dressing and green rooms, and lobby.

“Delphi’s Stellar Communities proposal was tightly focused on the downtown, in anticipation of the new Hoosier Heartland Highway,” Werling notes. The four-lane highway opened in 2013, bypassing the town and taking semi-truck traffic away from the courthouse square, a good thing for pedestrians—and theater patrons. “We’re engaged in a capital campaign to raise the $1.7 million match. While taking on debt did cause DPS heartburn, we recognized that this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to completely bring back a building that was central to the community and to Delphi’s revitalization strategy,” Werling observes.

The project installed new systems, and restored the theater, added a grand stairway from the ticket lobby, and widened the proscenium to allow larger productions and better sight lines. Five of the hall’s original decorative wallpapers were recreated by a company in Wabash, Indiana, complemented by commercially available papers reminiscent of the originals.

The opera house attracts people from out of town, and restaurants and shops stay open to accommodate the audiences. Local caterers and florists benefit too. The opera house hosts celebrations of all types—reunions, weddings, proms—as well as performances, meetings, and tours. Sara Daly-Brosman, the lone paid staff person, schedules shows to draw in different demographics, engaging the entire community.

Rena Brouwer, the artist who started as a volunteer gallery manager, now runs a new, rent-paying gallery in the building with Debra Waymire and Alan McConnell. “Before I agreed to operate the first gallery, I walked around the square. There were empty storefronts, nobody on the street. I talked to people in the businesses on the square, a few of whom were negative, against change and outsiders. Now, the storefronts are filled and there are people on the sidewalks,” she observes.

“The opera house creates a vibrancy that didn’t exist before, and more pride in the community,” says Delphi Mayor Shane Evans, a 27-yr-old law school graduate who took office last year. “Young people who always said they would leave are moving back now or investing here,” Evans observes. Mission accomplished.

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