SLIGHTLY OFF THE MARK
Years ago I shopped at a place called Excel Home Furnishings on the north side of the Noble County Courthouse square. (I didn’t actually buy anything; I was still young enough that cinder blocks and raw lumber were legitimate home decor.) I liked wandering around the second floor, because they’d installed enclosed bridges that allowed the furniture to be displayed not only in the original building, but in two other neighboring ones.
(I have no explanation for why I love exploring sprawling areas like that. It’s why I keep getting lost at the State Park … and the mall.)
In one of those buildings most of the upstairs was open, and there was a big raised area, like a stage. For someone who lived in a utility apartment at the time, I thought it was really cool. At home, I could stand in one place and touch two walls.
It turned out to be even more cool when one of the employees showed me a normally closed off area, where we could see the outer walls and roof. There they were, plain as day: Charred wood and smoke stains. At one time in the distant past, he explained, the building had burned.
That was my introduction to the Albion Opera House.
Now the building is for sale, and there’s a push on to save it. Save it from what, you say? Well, my first guess would be parking lots. There’s not enough parking in downtown Albion, but if all the old brick buildings were knocked down and turned into pavement, there wouldn’t be much reason to park there anyway.
I think it should be saved, so my rich readers should contact Phyllis Herendeen at the Unique Boutique in Albion, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What do you mean, I don’t have any rich readers?
I know what you’re thinking: “But Mark, you hate opera.”
True. But I like orchestras, which performed there, and I love movies, which were screened there. Other people like sports: Basketball games were once played in the Opera House. Suppers, musicals, dances … it was an armory during World War 2, and for a short time in the 1880’s it housed the Noble County Government. Maybe they even had operas there. Just ask Linda Shultz, who wrote a book about Albion’s history long before I did. (What, you thought I was original?)
But the reason I want to see the building saved dates not back to its construction before the 1880’s, but for something that happened to it in 1931 – something that should have ensured its destruction.
Considering the story I started with, I suppose no one is in suspense.
Consider not only the fire, but the times: It was January 16, 1931, when someone noticed the flames at about 11 p.m.
Only a year earlier the Albion Fire Department got their first motorized fire truck, a 1929 engine. When fire broke out in the large two story brick Opera House, and threatened to spread to other nearby structures, that was the first apparatus out of the firehouse two blocks away.
Second came a Ford pickup truck, on which had been mounted the chemical engine that was originally horse-drawn. The Ford also towed a 1910 era two wheeled cart, which had mounted on it 350 feet of hose. A second, rarely used reserve hose cart held 200 feet of hose, and was probably hauled to the scene by hand at this moment of crisis.
That was it.
Soon the chemical engine ran out of chemicals to pressurize water. Chief John F. Gatwood, his two Assistant Chiefs and eighteen volunteers were left with one fire engine, which could in a best case scenario supply two fire hoses. Did they call for help from other towns? Sure. But how long did it take other volunteers to go ten or more miles on 1931 roads, at nighttime in the middle of January? (The answer: Awhile.)
In case you haven’t read Smoky Days and Sleepless Nights, I’m not going to spoil you on whether they managed to save the Albion Opera House. But I do think that the building is worth saving today.
Okay, forget the spoiler thing. The Noble County Democrat newspaper office on the first floor was saved, and by the first week of February contractors named Moore and Thomas started work on remodeling. Twenty-seven local businessmen each donated $100 to rebuild the second floor, putting in a brand new arched roof and a bigger stage. The place was open for business in two months. I’d like to see Washington, D.C. pull that off.
So yeah, I think it’s worth saving: not only for the historical aspect, but because we already saved the thing once, doggone it. And while it’s going to take more than a hundred bucks apiece, I can’t help thinking an effort by local citizens to restore the place would be worth it.
Personally, I’d like to own the building myself. It would be cool to have a big open air apartment upstairs and maybe downstairs a little museum in front and my writing office in back. Or maybe an exotic, um, dance studio. But I also think it would be cool to keep the bills I already have paid, so we’ll have to go to Plan B.
Does anyone have a Plan B?