OTTUMWA — Dennis Willhoit wasn’t sure how many people would turn out Saturday evening at the new home of the American Gothic Performing Arts Festival. They had a performance recently, so a lot of people got a look then.

Besides, those clouds off to the west looked awfully ominous.

The AGPAF has taken over the former B’Nai Jacob Synagogue, giving the building new life as the Temple of Creative Arts. It’s all still new for the group, and Willhoit spent part of the evening with Connie Ferguson, taking a close look at the building’s architecture.

There are still clear signs of the building’s original purpose. The ark at the front of what had been the sanctuary remains, with small indentations still just visible from where the tips of the Torah scrolls rested on its base for all those decades. A pair of intricately carved lion heads flank the ark.

For Connie Ferguson and Kyle Roemerman, having a permanent home for the festival is a welcome development.

“It’s probably always been a dream. We just never thought that we would get to this point,” Ferguson said.

The timing worked, though. The synagogue’s membership, dwindling for years, finally reached the point where keeping the house of worship intact wasn’t realistic. Last August, the congregation donated a priceless Torah to a new synagogue forming in South America. It was a remarkable gift. Torahs are copied by hand, by scribes, and each letter must be perfect. If an error cannot be removed, the page is rendered unusable and must be begun again.

The gift gave new life to a congregation thousands of miles away even as it signaled the end of the one in Ottumwa.

Roemerman said the festival was looking at options for a permanent home. It has had good partners over the years, but there’s nothing quite like a place of your own. Now, finally, they have it.

Ferguson said the timing was good for both sides. “We were fairly lucky, because the last few years they had replaced all the mechanical stuff,” she said.

But, as any homeowner knows, once the property is in your name there’s a lot of responsibility.

“There are things that are new things that we have to worry about now,” Roemerman said.

But that’s part of the deal when you buy property. And, even with the new worries, Roemerman and Ferguson are excited. There will be time for everything else later. For now, getting used to the idea of having a permanent home is enough.

“Baby steps,” Ferguson said with a smile.


Matt Milner currently serves as the Courier's Managing Editor. Milner is a trained weather spotter and is usually outside if there are storms. He joined the Courier in 2002.