Release Date: February 1, 2010

Historic challenge Grand Opera House puts renovation on center stage

Insight

If walls could talk, the Grand Opera House in Oshkosh is shouting "Save me!" At least, that is what it was saying in February 2009, when a routine project to add a new fire sprinkler led to the discovery that the 125-year-old building's roof trusses and joists were failing.

Undetected, the entire ceiling could have detached and come down onto the seating area in a single sheet of plaster. A year later, the building and those who love it are saying "thank you," as Boldt Construction crews work on a $1.8 million renovation project to breathe new life into the landmark William Waters building.

But it's more than just another old building that will be saved when the project is complete. It will also restore an important cog in both the psyche and economic engine of downtown Oshkosh.

"This effort has highlighted just how many people have been touched by the Grand," says Joe Ferlo, executive director of the Grand Opera House. "This building is a meaningful part of this community's history and certainly an important part of a recovering downtown."

When the Grand shuttered its doors a year ago, the nearby Water City Grill closed down within a month, which its owners at least partially attributed to the loss of patrons attending shows at the Grand. While no other closures have been linked to the Grand, the downtown area will lack one of its top draws until the doors reopen. Reopening will not be without its challenges.

From the outside, it's hard to tell there is anything out of sorts with the historic venue. Inside the theater, a forest of scaffolding has taken over the majestic main hall. The seats have been removed and sent to storage, as has much of the lighting. The myriad of scaffolding holds up the ceiling as workers from Boldt buzz about in the attic shoring up the trusses and replacing the attic floor and main hall ceiling.

The trusses, joists and ceiling were all part of the original 1883 construction of the building. The challenge for crews working on the restoration is to maintain the historic nature of the building while also making sure their work complies with modern codes. To use a cliche, they don't build them how they used to.

"A lot of times, we are working with construction techniques that have not been used in decades," says Reed Rodenkirch, project manager for Boldt. "There have also usually been decades of remodelling and cover ups."

In the case of the Grand, what they found was the trusses, with their massive wooden beams, had sunk nearly 10 inches in some spots. The trusses have to be raised back into place and reinforced with steel beams while the attic floor and theater ceiling are torn out and replaced. All the while, crews working 35 feet from the theater floor must try to protect the decorative ceiling soffits and make sure no debris damages other parts of the building. Because of the building's status on the national register of historic places, all the work had to be reviewed by the state.

Fortunately, the crew from Boldt has had some experience working on historic buildings such as the Grand. Rodenkirch managed a historic project in Beaver Dam, Wis., where crews renovated a building at Wayland Academy built in 1855. Others from that crew are also taking part in the renovation work at the Grand.

"I would not say they specialize, because there is probably not enough work to do that," Rodenkirch says."But, it is nice to have folks on hand who have seen these things a time or two."

William Rutter would agree with that. He was the architect of record when another Waters building was renovated in Oshkosh, the First Congregational Church, a massive Gothic revival building at 137 Algoma Boulevard constructed shortly after 1900. The church was looking to remove a wall that had been added in the 1960s and improve the sound and light qualities in the building. Rutter knew, based on his research of Waters' work, that light and sound in the building would probably be best corrected by removing the renovations done in later years. Just part of the challenge of working with historical buildings—undoing many of the changes made to the original structure.

"What he had done was still there and we just needed to take it backward," says Rutter, who now has his own firm, Rutter Architects, in Wautoma. "Once we opened it up, it took care of the lighting and, oddly enough, took care of most of the sound issues."

The other challenge faced was keeping the historic integrity of the building while also make sure to comply with current building codes, always a challenge when working on historic properties, Rutter says. That is less of a problem for a community like Ripon, which has no historic districts or preservation ordinances. Yet, the Main Street USA program there, under the direction of Executive Director Craig Tebon, has made the preservation and renovation a central component of the economic development strategy for the downtown.

Without any legal protections, it's up to Tebon and others to get the information out to building owners about the value of preserving the historic nature of their properties. They must also convince them they can generate revenue with a historic property. The results have been impressive, as the community has managed to preserve many of its unique downtown buildings, and fill many of them with a mix of professional offices and retail establishments. Nearly $15 million has been invested in downtown buildings in recent years. While the recession has made it more of a challenge, a major developer was attracted to the historic nature of the area and has been buying vacant properties with the intent of restoring them. "

Each building by itself doesn't necessarily make much of a difference, but as we have put the pieces together we have reached a critical mass where it does make a difference in higher resale and rents," Tebon says. "It's not just about making it a themed area, but it is real economic development."