The Ottumwa Courier

December 10, 2012

Committee works to restore 120-year-old opera house

Courier Staff Writer

ELDON — The McHaffey Opera House in Eldon is being restored to its original grandeur bit by bit and will soon be ready to host plays again.

The first floor of the building was bursting with 100 lit and decorated Christmas trees as visitors passed through during the McHaffey Opera House’s annual Christmas Tree “Wanderland” this weekend.

“That’s what this event is all about, is thanking the community for supporting us,” said Toni McClure, treasurer for the committee working to restore the 120-year-old opera house.

The trees belong to the committee, and businesses and individuals throughout the community can come in to decorate them.

“We never charge for anything,” she said. “It’s a thank you to them. It’s a lot of work, but the community really seems to like it.”

The group has been working on restoring the opera house for 18 years, and Christmas Tree Wanderland has graced the first floor for the past 10 to 12 years.

Over the years, the committee has raised thousands of dollars through their thrift store, as well as some grants.

They have been able to install new roofs, a furnace and air conditioning unit, windows and more. They even secured theater seats to fill part of the opera house with some of the original seating in the upper tiers.

The opera house was built in 1891 by David McHaffey from the bricks he had in his brickyard, McClure said. The ground floor always housed businesses while the auditorium upstairs was used for plays.

“We were on a circuit,” McClure said. “Different plays would come here from around the country, and the actors would stay at The Exchange Hotel.”

Another committee member, Jo Eddy, said originally, the opera house was entirely flat, though it had a balcony.

“And originally, the Eldon High School basketball team played up here,” Eddy said.

Eldon High School also held its graduation ceremonies in the auditorium from 1891 to 1941.

Today’s stadium seating didn’t show up until the 1920s, when the auditorium was renovated, the balcony was taken out and the projection room was installed.

The auditorium became the place to go for silent films. The last movies shown at the opera house were in 1947 after the local movie theater was flooded.

The committee acquired the building in 1994 and had a lot of work ahead of them.

“It was a total mess up there,” McClure said. “It hadn’t been used since the 1940s. It needed a lot of work.”

All that’s left now is one major project — they either need to restore the walls flanking the stage or paint over them — as well as a few minor projects.

“It’s been a long, ongoing project, but it’s well worth it,” she said.

Eventually, their goal is to put a museum on the first floor and bring plays back to the opera house.

“It’s another old building that’s not torn down,” she said. “It preserves our history.”

McClure said it’s impressive that for a town of Eldon’s size, they have five buildings on the National Register of Historic Places.

“We’re getting down to where we can see the light,” McClure said.