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Mid-block Marvel

Project: Traverse City Opera House, MI

Architect: Quinn Evans | Architects, Ann Arbor, MI

Contractor: Christman Company, Traverse City, MI; Comstock Construction, Traverse City, MI

By Eve M. Kahn

Visitors in search of the opera house in Traverse City, MI, often unwittingly drive past it, expecting a freestanding landmark. Instead, like so many late Victorian theaters, it is tucked away on the second and third floors of an 1892 commercial building. All that indicates its presence on an extraordinarily intact Victorian main drag named Front Street is a gilded serif-typeface sign on the Romanesque Revival brick pediment.

Crowds nonetheless flock to the domed, barrel-vaulted venue, attending everything from concerts and movies to swing dances, weddings and cherry-pie banquets. Tourists also come just to ogle the historic fabric, from the ceiling murals of cupids to moldings studded with period-style exposed light bulbs and a vintage fire-screen curtain painted with ads for long-defunct local businesses offering phonographs, dry goods and "Chicago steaks." There's ever more reason lately for marveling there. Under the auspices of the Ann Arbor office of Quinn Evans | Architects, the opera house has undergone a seven-year, $8.3 million restoration, expansion and upgrade.

Stenciled barrel vaults have been meticulously replicated in acoustically resonant sheets of perforated aluminum, and a street-front building wing, which had been misguidedly modernized in the 1950s with casement windows and ridged metal panels, has regained a domed oriel window molded in copper with floral swags, ribbons and scallops. "That window has become one of our most popular spots," says Sheryl Hayward, the opera house's executive director. "People love the views from inside there, up and down Front Street. They'll even reserve the space for romantic candlelit dinners before a show."

The main auditorium, meanwhile, has become one of the state's most versatile gathering places. Which is what its founding fathers intended. When three prominent citizens of Bohemian Czech descent originally commissioned the building from local architect E.R. Prall, they asked for a flat maple floor and movable seats, to accommodate parties as well as performances. In the 1890s, the opera house presented everything from Knights of Pythias-sponsored plays to graduation ceremonies, political debates and a show called "Professor D.M. Bristol's Equines" – no one's sure exactly how the professor cajoled and maneuvered his talented horses and mules up the staircase and onto the stage.

No opera has ever been performed there, at least not yet. In fact the building should more accurately be called a theater, but that word to Victorian ears "had a disreputable connotation, suggesting sin and loose behavior," wrote local historian Larry Wakefield in a 1997 book, Grand Old Lady: The Story of the City Opera House. The house's management was so fearful of offending audiences with risqué scripts or costumes that a warning sign was posted backstage: "Objectionable Language Must be Eliminated from Your Act … A Violation of this Rule Means YOU CLOSE."

The owners liked demure décor as well. The auditorium is almost Adam-esque in its pastel palette and low plaster reliefs. On the 43-ft.-tall central dome, cupids entwined in gold ribbons play musical instruments. Four barrel vaults have floral stencils, wreath reliefs and the names of theatrical greats like Sarah Bernhardt, Edwin Booth and Leoš Janácek. Scrollwork brackets support the proscenium, while the loggias rest on Corinthian columns and are crowned in broken pediments. The lower-key lobbies and stairwells are wainscoted with stained wood, trimmed in simple corner rosettes. The most exuberant touches in sight are the auditorium's hundreds of exposed light bulbs, dangling amid acorn-shaped pendants along the beams and around the dome rim.

Despite the hall's elegance and adaptability, it closed in 1920 – its leaseholder also ran movie theaters nearby, and wanted to minimize competition for ticket buyers. Not until 1978 was the sleeping property revived, thanks to preservation activists who started bringing in small tour groups. The city took over the deed in 1980, the building reopened for performances in 1986, and since the 1990s, Quinn Evans has overseen phase after phase of improvements.

"It's been a marathon project, which is typical of nonprofit cultural clients like this, gradually fundraising," says project manager Paul Darling. When the firm started analyzing the bluestone-trimmed brick building, he adds, "the envelope was secure, the masonry and roof were in fairly good shape – the city had maintained the place over the years. But the radiators still ran on steam, and only natural ventilation came in from the windows and vertical chases built into the walls."

Quinn Evans wove new mechanicals above perforated-aluminum replacements for the dome and vaults (the originals contained asbestos). The aluminum panels, Darling explains, "allow sound to travel through and increase the acoustical volume of the space." If the mechanicals need repair, the panels can simply be unclipped.

New Millennium Inc. of Suttons Bay, MI, recreated the ceiling's decorative painting, based on paint analysis and documentation by Blue Water Studio of Petoskey, MI. The surrounding beams are studded again with light bulbs, this time long-life carbon-filament models. Equipment for the mechanicals has been fitted into a new brick addition, carved out of a former saddle shop at the back of the building. New plumbing snakes below the auditorium's maple floor, which was raised seven inches for acoustic insulation. The current sets of movable seats are upholstered armchairs (comfier than their wood-backed ancestors), while the balcony has fixed upholstered seats with floral filigree cast-iron standards from American Seating of Grand Rapids, MI.

Ticket holders enter via a restored pilastered storefront under the recreated oriel window. Once people step inside the auditorium, says Hayward, "their jaws drop. The reaction has just been phenomenally positive. It's a wonderful, warm, usable, friendly, intimate space. Performers love it, too – the local symphony is blown away by the acoustics." Despite Michigan's economic woes, she adds, "We're 80% booked, we're breaking even, and we have no debt."

All of Front Street is getting busier, she explains, partly because filmmaker Michael Moore has bought and restored a 1940s cinema called the State Theatre, a few blocks away, which shows first-run, classic and independent movies. "We're like the anchor stores for the downtown," Hayward says. "There's a festive vibrancy to the street now." TB

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