By: Dana Smith, MSV Summer Intern
In a town as deeply rooted in its past as Vermilion, it feels like almost everyone has experienced some sort of historic preservation or renovation. Our merchants reside in historic buildings (it seems like almost every building used to be a dry goods store) with a diverse list of former tenants that traces the town’s evolution. From the countless former captains’ homes scattered across the city and the quest for the lighthouse’s Fresnel lens to the amount and variety of objects donated to the Vermilion History Museum, Vermilion is rife with reminders of our past that many try to preserve. Restoration can require scouring the house for clues as to its original floor plan, trying to sort through conflicting information as to how many rooms there were or number of seats a venue could hold, struggling with what is salvageable and what can’t be saved – but it’s all worth it when the project is complete.
While there are many restored historic properties in town, one that’s ready to start gaining momentum again is the Vermilion Opera House. The endeavor has faced several challenges since its inception but continues to look toward the future, and is a perfect example of the time, effort, and perseverance required to successfully reinvigorate historic properties.
Built in 1883, the Old Town Hall used to be the center of political and social activity in Vermilion. While township offices resided and functioned in the building until 2005, the Opera House most likely saw its last event in the mid-70s. Since then, it has sat mostly untouched and vacant on the second floor of the Town Hall. While time has taken its toll on the old theatre, many of it original features remain: beautiful stain glass windows, the balcony, curtains, and theatre seats were all part of the initial structure. They remain there now, just waiting for someone to walk in the door and into the past. Many can probably relate to this feeling of entering a historic space, recognizing its potential, and envisioning it as it once was.
As is the goal with most restorations, the Vermilion Opera House organization hopes to bring new life to the space while preserving its essence. One concert occurred last year when The Voice contestant Emily Keener of Wakeman utilized the space for a music video. With the audience full and her on stage, it must have been easy to imagine a time where this would have been regular gathering place for Vermilion residents. Even though the Opera House project is currently on hold, Sid Jordan says, “I’m still approached on a regular basis by people who want to help!” So, with the right people and enough time, hopefully we’ll be able to add the Opera House to the list of successful historic preservations in Vermilion.
There is a certain specialness that surrounds buildings like this. They emanate a strong sense of place for Vermilionites that inspires a passion to bring them back to life. Whether you volunteer your time, voice your support, take up a project of your own, or appreciate the final product, discover and explore the past of your town. There are little pockets of history like the Opera House all around Vermilion – you just have to find them!