STAPLES, MINN. – Chad Longbella’s dad opened Longbella Drug here the year after World War II ended, back when this little downtown used to hum. Across the street was Batcher’s department store. As Longbella was growing up, his mom told stories of roller-skating in a big auditorium above the store. But those times had long since passed.
Like all the kids in this central Minnesota city of 3,000 people, Longbella thought of the old building as a buy-anything store and town hub. Generations had memories of getting Chuck Taylor All-Stars or Nikes here, or Sedgefield jeans, or getting numbers ironed on the back of their Staples Cardinals athletic uniforms.
Even though they went past the town’s most prominent building every day, hardly anyone from Longbella’s generation knew of the historical treasure upstairs: a century-old opera house that a historic preservationist recently called “a time warp in the best possible way.”
“You knew there were apartments up there,” Longbella said recently. “But you really had no idea there was that gem up there, just hidden away in plain sight.”
Now, a group is trying to revitalize this 112-year-old time capsule near the banks of the Crow Wing River. A request for $8.5 million in state bonding money will be among 350 requests this coming legislative session. If approved, the community would pony up another $8.5 million to restore and repurpose the building that takes up an entire city block.
The plan for the Batcher Block Opera House is twofold: pay homage to the remarkable artistic history of this railroad town while giving downtown a momentum boost.
The restored opera house wouldn’t just be a unique performance space with world-class acoustics. It’s seen as a boon to the entire community, with plans calling for space for artists-in-residency, classrooms for arts classes for all ages, event space, a demonstration kitchen, office space and a museum — all owned by the city and operated by a nonprofit.
What’s happening here is part of a national, creative place-making movement that some see as newly relevant in America’s small towns, using existing infrastructure to leverage arts for community-building.
“Once the lights go on in that building, the whole town will light up,” said Carter Averbeck, whose Twin Cities historical preservation and interior design firm, Omforme, will manage the project. “Through the decades someone usually did renovations and destroyed things. That wasn’t the case here. Here, they literally just shut the doors. You don’t expect to find this, especially in middle-of-nowhere Minnesota.
“This is a sleeping giant,” he continued. “We just have to wake it up, and it’ll shine.”
The place to be
Staples was founded in the late 1800s around a sawmill. Logs from surrounding pine forests were brought here, then floated down the Crow Wing toward the Mississippi River. But it wasn’t until a few years later, when a railroad switching yard was built, that Staples found its identity as a travelers’ rest.
Rail workers built 110-car trains out of freight cars in the switching yard. Crews laid over while traveling between Minneapolis and Moorhead. It was a major rail hub; from Staples, the line went east to Duluth or south to the Twin Cities. Passengers who paused flooded downtown streets by the thousands, thirsty for entertainment. The opera house that Charles Batcher opened in 1907 wasn’t the town’s only opera house — at one point, it had three others — but it was the grandest. Ladies wore fur coats. Men wore top hats. Walk up to the balcony today and there are still metal top-hat holders beneath seats.
A traveling theater troupe opened the venue with the play “Prince Karl” in 1907. In following years, the famed American composer John Philip Sousa conducted here, and a performance of “Polly of the Circus” featured horses and ponies. The opera house screened motion pictures. At one point the second-floor performance space was considered to have some of the best acoustics in America. It was the place to be.
But times changed. The venue became a roller-skating rink during the Great Depression. After World War II, as Chad Longbella’s father was opening his drugstore, the opera house was shuttered. Apartments were built on the second floor, and for decades the ground floor would be Batcher’s Federated Store. In the 1980s, the town lost its switching yard, which devastated its main street. The department store became an antiques store. Mainstays like D.J.’s Menswear, Nancy’s Boutique and Time Jewelry closed their doors. Like many of America’s small towns, Staples fell on hard times.
All the while, a shuttered gem sat hidden.
The first time state Rep. John Poston of nearby Lake Shore visited the historic opera house he’d heard so much about, his car’s navigation system told him, “You have arrived.”
“Really?” thought Poston. He drove around the block five times, confused. He had an idea of what an opera house looked like, and this wasn’t it.
“It just looked like an old department store,” he said.
Colleen Frost, originally from nearby New York Mills, had purchased the building in 2003.
“There’s some music hall up there,” her brother told her before they bought it. It was packed with furniture, with dust like she’d never seen. The siblings poured money and energy into it. Frost looked past the dust and saw something special and unique — not just a relic of the past, but something that could be transformed for the future.
The building got listed on the National Register of Historic Places. A stage consultant from the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in St. Paul toured the site with Frost. “Don’t touch anything!” he beseeched her. An Iowa company, Alchemy Community Transformations, formulated a comprehensive plan for the building.
A close look at the frescoed ceiling reveals monkey faces and lion heads, dragons and cabbage roses. Averbeck estimates the restoration, using historically accurate milk paint, will take a year. A team will replace crumbling plaster walls and then recreate frescoes in original Bavarian style.
“It’s so much fun to watch the facial expressions of people who haven’t been in there before,” said Jerel Nelsen, the Staples city administrator. “To have it sitting there in its original condition, untouched for so many years — it’s amazing.”
The fact it’s a time capsule is an important part of the state bonding decision. But so is the way that the time capsule can affect the region. A study by the University of Minnesota Extension estimated construction and rehabilitation will generate nearly $22 million in economic activity, plus $1.7 million in continued spending annually from the project’s operations.
“What we look for in capital investments are things that are regionally significant and bring people into this community to visit,” Poston said.
Staples was struggling a generation ago. Recent years have seen a renewal. Enrollment is up at Central Lakes College’s campus. Lakewood Hospital has expanded its state-of-the-art facilities. Sourcewell, a cooperative purchasing agency serving a five-county area, has 200 employees. The school district is a rare small-town district blessed with band, choir and orchestra programs. There are some boarded-up businesses downtown, but not many.
Now, a big old building is starting to wake up.
“We could sit here all day long and beg somebody to open a shoe store again,” said Staples Mayor Chris Etzler. “But that’s not what Staples is gonna be moving forward. We’ve got to find what we are. And 112 years ago Charles Batcher kind of laid that out for us. For a lot of years that was who we were. We got away from it. But this is such a big opportunity for us to get back.”