Staples opera house returns to roots as center of lively arts community
STAPLES -- The historic Batcher Block Opera House is far removed from its heyday, but better days are ahead with revitalizing the landmark in downtown Staples to its previous glory.
The building was built in 1907 as an entertainment venue, with commercial businesses on the main floor. It housed the opera hall along with offices and apartments for railroad executives.
“Charles Batcher was responsible for building the beautiful opera house … and one family owned it up until Chris Frost, my twin brother and myself bought it,” Colleen Frost said of the opera hall that was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2004.
The revitalization is through a partnership with the Staples Economic Development Authority along with local business and community leaders as part of the economic revival of the downtown area that Frost is passionate about and a reason for her purchase.
“I had a cancer diagnosis where I was given one year to live, so my twin brother knew how much I wanted to find an ‘extreme home.’ … My twin brother is a musician … and when we opened the doors … no one had been in here for like 40 years,” Frost said of the opera house.
The Batcher Block Opera House is one of only 13 opera houses of its kind in the United States, according to officials.
The creation of a business plan was funded by Sourcewell and the city of Staples, which was created as part of the city’s application for the revitalization of the building to be considered for funding in the 2020 Minnesota Legislature Capital Projects budget.
McClure Placemaking was awarded the contract for writing the business plan. Harmonious Architecture is overseeing the structural needs along with Norson Construction. Historical restoration has been awarded to Omforme Design for the intricate mural work within.
“Nobody takes on something like this if they didn’t have the passion for wanting to live, so basically, I’ve always said that this project saved my life,” Frost said of her involvement.
The main floor of the 112-year-old building was used for commercial and retail businesses, but in the past century, the opera hall portion was used for opera performances, as a movie theater, as a roller-skating rink, and for public gatherings and celebrations.
“The traveler who came via train from New York to California, all the trains turned here, so this was the traveler’s rest (stop). This was where big shows from New York performed here, from circuses to John Philip Sousa,” said Frost, a 55-year-old Perham resident.
The main level remained as retail space as the nearby railroad declined in popularity, with the primary tenant as the Batcher Department Store, but the building saw declining occupancy in the early 1990s. The department store was remade into antique store in 1995.
“There were apartments in the building, and those people did not even know there was an opera hall down the hallway,” Frost said. “A hundred years ago, there were over four opera houses (in the vicinity), and had it not been for Staples train history, these places would not exist.”
There have been attempts to preserve and restore the opera hall and building with limited success, according to Staples Economic Development Director Melissa Radermacher.
“That’s what we are trying to do here today is to get people excited about it,” Frost said of the opera house, which is 5,000 square feet with a stage that extends also in front of the curtain, two private boxes and a balcony on the second floor.
The opera hall’s addition to the National Register of Historic Places makes it eligible for funding and tax incentives for preservation and rehabilitation.
“That’s been my dream -- to get on the National Register first -- and then to turn the lights on, and I found a partnership with the city that I’ve never seen work so hard at trying to make my initial dream come true, and that’s to finish what I started,” Frost said.
The main floor is 9,000 square feet with an open floor plan while the second and third floors -- excluding the opera hall -- are at about 4,000 square feet, each with 11 rooms. The department store was made into an antique mall in 1995.
“Comedian Louie Anderson came in to buy the antique mall, and we said, ‘Would you like to see our little opera house?’ And he says, ‘What?’ and so he said he wants to be our first show, so at that point, we thought, ‘Well, maybe we should have shows,’” Frost said.
The theater’s design was to maximize acoustics. The walls slope upward toward coved ceilings, the balcony seating slopes downward toward the 24-by-50-foot stage.
“I do have to question why this space has never got that backing, that big push to restore it, or maybe it just wasn’t the right time,” Radermacher said. “Colleen and I met a few years back. We’ve been working on what kind of a project we could do here.”
The opera hall has not had any significant remodeling done to it and has the original backdrops, lighting and stage equipment, all of which are operational, according to Radermacher and Frost. Frost has given tours of the building for the last seven years.
“What is the attraction of the building? It isn’t little shops here and there, it isn’t those other things. It’s this space in here -- that opera house -- that is what we want people coming to this space for,” Radermacher said of the potential economic driver for the region.
The Nov. 21, 1907, opera house grand opening featured the play “Prince Karl” by the Mack-Leone Co., a Minnesota-based traveling theater troupe. More recently, Anderson did a show as well as Mickey Rooney and the blues band Lamont Cranston in the opera hall.
“This is the only opera house in the nation that has the original Bavarian fresco artwork in it … so we’re going to be able to recreate exactly to the ‘T’ of what it is. It’s going to require a lot of work and a lot of paint,” Radermacher said.
Studies show “the building is in remarkably good condition, considering its age and length of vacancy,” and “there are no structural or building code related renovations that would make renovation impractical,” according to Radermacher.
“When you talk about downtown revitalization, this is it,” Radermacher said of the Batcher Block Opera House, which occupies almost a whole city block in downtown Staples.
The Batcher Block Opera House and all related programming will be managed by a new nonprofit organization, which will enter into a long-term lease with the city of Staples for the use and management of the building.
“The city involvement has grown over the last couple of years as far as how we can make this happen,” Radermacher said. “It started off as, ‘I’m here to support Colleen’ … and now it’s turned into Rep. John Poston was informed of the project and what we’re trying to do here. He said, ‘Well, I think this would be a great bonding application for general obligation bonding at the state.’”
Plans for the building include a restored performance space with diverse programming and rentals, and flexible classroom/event space available for community and private events, including a demonstration culinary kitchen.
“Ultimately, we want to be the regional performing arts hub. You look at our five-county region, and we see a lot of visual arts … but you’re not seeing much on the performance side. And we really, as a community, have always been the performing arts hub of our region of the state,” Radermacher said.
Other uses envisioned include a concessions area to service events and rentals in the building; lodging space to host touring artists and educators as well as, long term, an artist residency program; office and meeting space; and events such as markets on the first floor.
“We ended up hiring McClure engineering (out of Iowa). They specialize in placemaking and taking these historic type of buildings and helping us figure out a business plan and how do we restore them … and how do we keep them viable for the long run,” Radermacher said.
“We hired them to find out, if we move forward with this bonding application, is this viable -- like is the city going to be taking taxpayer dollars and constantly pouring into this space? Because that wouldn’t be something the city would want to do, and it wouldn’t be feasible or practical.”
The city of Staples, community stakeholders and partner groups plan to “restore the now-dormant space to preserve the historic character of the building while making necessary changes and upgrades for the building to function with a new use.”
“So if you invest the $16 million to restore and renovate this entire space -- and that’s a high estimate, we haven’t gotten any blueprints done -- as the state does, then who’s to say in five years we don’t close the door because we didn’t have a viable plan as to what we were going to do with it,” Radermacher said.
According to the overview for the Batcher Block Opera House Project: “The current state bond opportunity presents a unique moment for the opera house, along with the potential for state and historic tax credits to aid in the capital financing.”
“Assuming that there’s an approval -- and that’s a big assumption -- for the 50% of the total project, which is about $8.5 million down at the state end of the 2020 budget, then the city would actually use those dollars along with what we fundraise to acquire the space and then lease it back to a nonprofit,” Radermacher said.
The Batcher Block Opera House project includes a proposed mixed-use performance and education hub, according to plan details that suggested space design and best usage for the revitalization, artistic excellence and long-term sustainability of the opera house.
“Staples’ most valuable asset drives by us everyday,” Frost said of motorists in the Staples region. “We’ve just got to turn the light on and get them to pull in, so that’s what I’m excited. This is the first time that I’ve ever had this type of support, and I really believe it’s happening.”
For Your Info
Business: Batcher Block Opera House.
Owners: Colleen and Chris Frost, twin siblings.
Did you know?: Charles Batcher was born near Rochester in 1866, studied architecture in Minneapolis and settled in Staples in 1895 while working in the construction industry. He is credited with building at least 200 residences and commercial structures in Staples.