A group of community members are working to restore the building that sits at 701 Iowa Street in Essex back to its glory days as an opera house.
In the late 1800s, it was common for small towns along the railroads to build opera houses.
The building that served as one of the finest opera houses in the area for many years was built initially for $3,000 in 1877 at 900 Nebraska Ave. and served as the Essex Baptist Church. In 1894 the building was purchased by the Essex Booster Club, moved to its current location and was transformed into the Essex Opera House.
The Essex Booster Club was formed in September of 1909 and consisted of a group of businessmen that worked to promote Essex. The club was instrumental in providing leadership to establish the Essex Opera Company. The organization also sponsored free movies on Saturday nights, comedy acts, jugglers and magicians at the Opera House.
In 1947 the American Legion Post #333 purchased the building and held their meetings there for many years until they sold the building in 2010. While owned by the American Legion Post #333, the building would host dances, turkey shoots and class plays.
After the sale in 2010, the building housed two different bar and grills until the city purchased the building on June 26, 2019.
While the building will not be used as an opera house after restoration is complete, the committee spearheading the project hopes it can be used for community events and to hold memorabilia from Essex’s history.
Community members serving on the committee are Sandy Correll, Betty Franks, Gary Bowman, Tom Ross, Lori Racine, Carol Chambers, Tish Glasgo, Brenda Morehouse and Diane Liljedahl.
“Our plan is we’re applying for grants and right now, we qualified for a grant through the DNR,” Liljedahl said. "They have done an asbestos inspection, abatement structural engineering analysis and they’re doing a phase one environmental assessment. When we get those reports back, then we hope to proceed and secure some funds to restore it as close as possible to the original condition.”
Liljedahl said thanks to a donation from a community member, the building already has a new roof, but the rest of the building is in bad shape. She is also concerned that there will be foundation issues.
Liljedahl said the committee is in the process of getting bids that will give them an idea of the dollar amount it will take to restore the building. After receiving bids for the repairs, the committee will focus on fundraising events.
The COVID-19 pandemic has slowed the process down, but Liljedahl said she hopes to have it close enough to completion by the Labor Day celebration in 2021 that they could host an open house for people to view the progress.
Donations can be made at Essex City Hall located at 412 Iowa Ave., to go towards the Opera House restoration project.
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