Landmark Staples opera house to be sold
A Staples landmark — with original furnishings still in place from its 1907 opening — is scheduled to be sold in an estate sale.
“I put everything I had — heart and soul — into it,” Colleen Donley said of the effort she and her twin brother put into restoring the Batcher Block Opera House. “My health is at a time when I can’t keep running that building.”
The 1907 Batcher Block Opera House, on the National Register of Historic Places, along with original contents and antiques is being sold in an estate sale 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Aug. 18-21.
It’s a building that has not only been stage to theater productions, but to copious amounts of history such as the presidential election night supper on Nov. 3, 1908. The election was won by William Howard Taft. The backstage walls were signed by entertainers during the following decades, including Jelly Roll Morton’s jazz band
Original 1907 stage backdrops, theater seating, antique, projectors, chandeliers, playbills, antique bottles and glass and other items will be sold, along with Mary Roberts Rinehart posters from her original plays from New York for the Batcher Block Opera House. Elite Estate Services, Champlin, is handling the estate sale.
Donley and her brother, Chris Frost, became owners of the three-story brick building with the opera house in 2003. They had a vision for its future as a draw for the city. They went to work drawing attention to its legacy and working on restoring the building.
The Batcher Block was created by Charles Edward Batcher, a prominent architect who erected hundreds of houses, a business building and a sawmill in Staples.
“The first floor has been occupied by businesses throughout the building’s history,” a 2004 Dispatch article reported. “The second and third floors’ rooms started as offices before becoming apartments in the 1920s; they were still in use as recently as 2000. But the opera house went into a long hibernation in the 1940s. It was opened in the 1980s for a Staples centennial event and in the ‘90s for an auction, but other than that, the grand venue was relegated to a giant storeroom. Until Frost threw the switch in 2003. The lights worked just fine.”
Donley, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2002 and went through a rough year of chemotherapy, said Staples saved her life by giving her something to work toward. She had a toddler son and a project to throw herself into.
“I’m very lucky to be here,” she said. “For me, Staples gave me hope.”
But now, Donley said it’s too physically taxing for her to continue.
“My health is at a time when I can’t keep running that building,” she said. “I think whoever is going to turn the lights on again is going to continue our dream.”
Donley actively worked to save the Staples Depot and believes the Batcher Block has an important role for the city’s future.
“If you want to preserve history you have to step up,” she said. She pointed to the Franklin Arts Center in Brainerd, where a school was turned into an arts center, as an example of what could happen in Staples with the right vision and leadership. But Donley said people have to support it.
For two years Donley thought about the best way to part with the history, losing sleep about it. She decided letting parts of it go to collectors who would appreciate the history was better than leaving it all inside for an uncertain future, depending on who bought the 30-room building. One original backdrop is being left with the stage.
“A little bit of Staples is going to go to a lot of different areas,” she said. “We have to let it go.”
Donley can see a performing arts center with artists living in the building’s apartments or a creative center just off Highway 10. Donley said she sees the sale as a positive and a step she has to take to put her estate in order.
“Something will happen there that will value the history,” she said. “You have to have a big enough dreamer to see how that can work. It’s going to happen for Staples. I just have to believe that.”
RENEE RICHARDSON may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5852.