Porter County's beloved and historical Memorial Opera House (MOH) is hoping to see some major upgrades soon with proposed plans to rehabilitate and renovate the landmark building while honoring the intent of the Civil War veterans by preserving it as a living, breathing memorial.
Monument or Memorial Hall?
The Opera House’s story began in 1890 during a meeting for the Valparaiso Chaplain Brown Post No. 106 of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), a Civil War veteran's organization. At this meeting, an inspiring speech was given by Porter County resident James Drapier, one of many looking to honor those in the community who served during the Civil war in a way greater than a common monument or statue.
"We don't want to be heroes. All we want is to find a place in the community and fill it acceptably. We want to do something for our home town rather than have the town do something for us," said Drapier. "Who wants to cross the square every day and see his own name sticking out accusingly at him, saying some citizens got bilked out of a pair of silver dollars for that name plate? Personally, I refuse to stand by and see the citizens bled in the name of patriotism. I don't want any monument. Do you?"
Drapier's speech swayed fellow GAR members into believing that a simple monument, which was very common in communities across Indiana and the rest of the United States, was not appropriate in Porter County. They wanted to do something else, but an Act established in 1865 by the Indiana legislature only allowed county governments to spend funds for monuments. So, a delegation of Chaplain Brown Post members proceeded to Indianapolis to seek changes to the Act of 1865 to allow county funds to be spent on the construction of a memorial hall that would serve the entire community. The Act was amended in March of 1891.
Around the same time, members of the GAR, along with their families and friends, were hard at work collecting funds. Money was raised in a variety of ways, from formal campaigns to dinners, fairs, and sales hosted by The Women's Relief Corps, an official auxiliary unit of the GAR. With the amended law in place, Porter County Commissioners also donated to the cause, including funds and the land where the hall was to be built.
As a matter of record, the Commissioners included a statement in their minutes that the building "shall be forever and perpetually a memorial to the soldiers and sailors of the late war." As to ownership, the building was to be owned by the local GAR Chaplain Brown Post until "after the last member of the GAR shall have passed on, the building shall become the property of the county, to be always maintained as a monument to the Veterans of the Civil War."
Valparaiso resident and architect Charles F. Lembke designed the nearly 40,000 square foot building. The outcome of the community's efforts was the construction and dedication of the Memorial Hall, which was completed on November 8, 1893. By November 11, the building was serving as the headquarters for the Chaplain Brown Post, but also as a center to bring people together and strengthen community bonds. On November 27, 1893, the Memorial Hall was formally dedicated.
A Living Memorial
For 129 years, the Memorial Opera House has served as a community gathering space consistent with the original intent of the GAR and Drapier who wanted "to do something for our home town rather than having the town do something for us."
Over its history, MOH became a popular spot for political rallies, concerts, lectures, plays, and social events, as well as a meeting place for the GAR. When motion pictures came out, it became the first theatre in Porter County to show them. Many famous people appeared on that stage, including President Theodore Roosevelt, music composer and march king John Phillip Sousa, and the Marx Brothers.
Among the stars was one who deserves special recognition. Beulah Bondi, a local girl, was given a rave review for the title role in “Little Lord Fauntleroy” on the Opera House stage when she was just eight years old. Bondi went on to Hollywood, and you most likely remember her as Jimmy Stewart’s mom in “It’s A Wonderful Life.” Bondi returned to Valparaiso periodically to visit family and old haunts, including the Opera House and Valparaiso University. She is credited with giving a “generous donation” in 1967 to help purchase new seating.
Over the past decade, MOH has offered award-winning plays and musical theatre productions, as well as local and nationally recognized musical acts. New programs in the works include a children’s program with over 200 kids involved, and soon the Opera House will be the first chapter in Indiana of The Penguin Project, a national program that makes it possible for special needs kids to have onstage experience.
“Theatre, community, and the arts are at the heart of our mission,” MOH Executive Director Scot PJ MacDonald said. “We continually do our best to share our joy with the community. The theatre is one place where the things that divide us don’t matter. It’s a place where we can come together, experience something, rediscover our humanity, and find some common ground.”
The Next 129 Years
Being a Porter County staple for over a century, the proposed renovations and upgrades are needed to make sure the Opera House can continue to honor Civil War veterans by serving the original intent as a gathering place for the Porter County community.
On the outside, the Opera House is expected to receive a polished and refined look, with updates to the masonry, windows, and exterior trim. An addition to the building is also in the proposed plans, as well as lighting the historic plaque, creating a new entry hardscape, adding street light poles, and improving storm water drainage.
Major changes are also proposed for the interior. The lobby and auditorium seating will be updated, and the entrance will be made more accessible. The box office, bar and restrooms will be relocated, finishes will be updated, and a new multi-purpose space will be added. The bathrooms will be bigger and handicap accessible, which will reduce lines and eliminate other problems as well. Offices will be moved and space will be freed up on the top floor, the lounge will be reconfigured, and the control room will be relocated.
There will also be mechanical infrastructure upgrades, which includes new HVAC systems, lighting, plumbing, and the fire alarm system.
MacDonald is looking forward to these proposed changes and how they will benefit both the Opera House and the surrounding community.
"The benefits of the proposed restoration and expansion of Memorial Opera House allow for us to not only continue to offer programming our patrons have come to love; but we will be able to offer an even greater array of opportunities for the community to enjoy our wonderful theatre," MacDonald said. "More Limelights Youth Theatre presentations, The Penguin Project and more concerts just scratch the surface of what our team is hoping to make a reality. Preservation of this living memorial is vital so it's here for years to come and future generations can experience the joy of the arts."
Continuing Our Commitment
When it was originally dedicated in 1893, the Porter County Commissioners stated that the Memorial Opera House "shall be forever and perpetually a memorial to the soldiers and sailors of the late war." The proposed renovation project was presented to the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War (GAR’s legal heirs) to assure that we are keeping our commitment. They responded with the following:
“We here wish to express our appreciation for the upcoming rehabilitation of the Memorial Opera House, and for your role in making this happen.
As you know, our focus is on the historic partnership between the community and the Grand Army of the Republic, that group of Union veterans who catalyzed both the concept and construction of the Opera House in the 1890s.
The GAR regularly met in the second story front room. Over the decades the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War (GAR’s legal heirs) intermittently continued this tradition. Your assurance that this meeting room will be substantially preserved after 120+ years of use means a great deal to those of us desiring historic continuity.
Many folks, maybe most, could be unaware that the building is first and foremost a war memorial. A proposal to enhance the stone dedication over the front entrance may improve the perception of this link to the 19th century. Further, suggestions of adding small and discreet references to the interior of the building, such as an honor roll of Porter County's Civil War dead, are nothing short of wonderful, and more than a century overdue.”
How Much Will This Cost and How Will it be Paid For?
The total estimated construction cost is $6.5 million. It has been proposed that the Opera House project, along with building a new County Highway Garage, will be funded by a revenue bond. The payments on the revenue bond will be offset by the Porter County Government Non-Profit Foundation's investment earnings from the sale of the old hospital. In effect, it will have zero impact on taxpayers. This same process was used for the Administration Center Plaza, Valparaiso Courthouse, Expo Center, 157 Franklin Center and the Courts building & new office building at the North County Government Annex. The renovations are part of a series of projects that Porter County Government began back in 2017 to address space needs and deferred maintenance in County owned buildings.
Where the Arts Create Community
Memorial Opera House Foundation President Cliff Bryan and the Foundation Board have put in a tremendous number of hours of work over time to make sure MOH continues to thrive, and they are excited to see these plans come to life. The expected financial ease to make these renovations happen additionally furthers Bryan's confidence that these upgrades will be a great asset to the area.
"The Memorial Opera House Foundation is 100% behind this project, and we are excited to be a part of the restoration and preservation of not only a great entertainment venue, but a Civil War Memorial," Bryan said. "We are grateful for the support of county officials, the descendants of the Grand Army of the Republic, and constituents from Porter County and all of Northwest Indiana helping to make this a premier arts venue."
MacDonald echoes Bryan's words and is also thankful of the many potential financial opportunities to upgrade the Opera House.
"No matter what, any contribution to Memorial Opera House will make a difference. we wouldn't be where we are without the support of dedicated volunteers, staff, elected officials, and of course patrons," MacDonald said.
For more information on upcoming events or to get involved with the Memorial Opera House, visit its website here.