We all have favorite places, treasured places. When we simply close our eyes, these are the places we can envision, recreate, visualize down to the smallest detail.
And each place carries this sense of something too. Some places carry peace. Other places carry excitement, newness and vibrancy. Still others carry familiarity and comfort.
A place that carries charm, heritage and rich community? Now that’s the Delphi Opera House.
Delphi – about 3,000 people, county seat of Carroll County, IN – could be merely a spot on the map. It could be a place to grab lunch en route to elsewhere. But with dedicated volunteers who have a heart for their community, it’s become much more.
My delightful friend Hannah is one of those gems who, well, sees the gems. She seeks the best in everything, and has a knack for sensing potential among history. Her diligence shows up in every part of her life, and especially so in her devotion to community. She’s originally from Delphi, and as one of its finest volunteers, she knows every inch of the town.
With Hannah as our tour guide, my first visit to Delphi a few weeks ago took us past beautifully restored homes, the Wabash & Erie Canal Park, the County Courthouse and much more. We ate from the all-things-homemade menu at the Stone House Restaurant & Bakery.
And then I planted my feet in the full-of-promise halls of the Delphi Opera House. This is a grand, three-story hall adjacent to the County Courthouse on Washington Street, in the heart of the downtown. Though built in 1864, its multi-use goals evoke a modern feel: shops and businesses on the first floor, residences on the second and a spacious hall on the third.
The Opera House opened its doors in 1865. The first event was a ball for returning Civil War soldiers. From there, the Opera House thrived, I learned. The venue hosted concerts, gatherings, shows, ceremonies, theatre and other large gatherings.
In the 1900s, however, other entertainments and venues competed for the community’s attention. And its reign came to a screeching halt in 1914 when the fire inspector closed its doors.
We all know the drill when a gem closes its doors: without investment and care, it becomes an eyesore. The hall became filled with storage crates and miscellaneous items from the lower level retail, Hannah told us. Its elegant plaster, painted backdrop and artistic interior endured water damage and dust and clutter overtook the space.
Fast forward to the 1990s. The popular Margaret Mead quote comes to mind: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
So goes the story of the Delphi Opera House today. At first glance, the project is complex, overwhelming and nearly insurmountable. Certainly even professionals might find it daunting. And yet citizens of Delphi are facing the renovation head-on.
Today, the Delphi Opera House is owned by the Delphi Preservation Society. This citizen-driven group has been working diligently since the Opera House acquisition to restore it to its former glory and build within it a sense of purpose for the future.
Construction hasn’t been simple, and it’s taking place in many stages. In May 2006, a structural analysis of the building ensured that restoration was realistic.
We saw the first fruits of the restoration on the first floor art gallery. Work from local artists covers the walls and literature about the community, the Delphi Preservation Society and the Opera House Renovation lines other areas.
We climbed dark staircases and saw remnants of the past lining all the walls. But the great hall captured our attention dramatically. Even at first glance, it was clear what potential this space has for the future of the community.
Rough plans have been laid for the future stages of restoration. But first, funds must be raised to match an already-acquired grant. Still other grants are contributed with specific purposes in mind and for certain stages of restoration.
All told? About $1.5 million must be raised.
Volunteers have spearheaded this entire project, from publicity to fundraising to construction and renovation.
“From the very beginning, volunteerism has been the driving force,” Hannah said. “It started out as an idea from one person and it trickled into the preservation society as a whole. Others were attracted from there, and it’s grown into a huge group.”
And these volunteers do everything, Hannah said, from showing up on Saturdays to work, to coordinating fundraisers to donating their own money. Just a handful of consultants have been involved and all else has been accomplished by the community.
At the heart of this project, friends, are community volunteers and donors. Foundations, businesses and individuals from the entire county are invested in making this piece of history a living, breathing piece of the present.
Restoration of the Delphi Opera House will both reveal and build heritage. And heritage, when you get right down to it, stitches a community together no matter what threatens the seams.
This story is the marriage of redemption and community. Oh, the Delphi Opera House has a long way to go. But every wooden seat in its audience has stories to share. As renovation is completed, the Opera House will be a visible picture of rebirth and renewal and brokenness made shiny again.