Reversing the Process of Decay

by Rachel Creager Ireland

I am on the board of the Strong City Preservation Alliance. Our current project is the restoration of the Opera House, also called the auditorium, or the movie theater. There was only ever one of any of those in Strong City, so no one bothers with any more formal name. It’s been empty for decades. People my age remember seeing movies there as kids, so I’d guess it was still open in the 70s or 80s. It was for a while owned by someone who used it for storage of his . . . stuff. Eventually the roof collapsed, and the city took possession so that the Alliance could restore it. It took time to get the roof replaced because first the walls had to be stabilized to be strong enough to support it.

Like most such projects, it could only happen because some people felt very strongly about it, and were willing to put in countless hours to make it happen. I’m a newcomer to the Alliance. I didn’t grow up here, so my only motivation is that I love old buildings, especially ones that have lots of space for various activities and dreams. So I thoroughly enjoyed working today in the clean-up of what remains of the little lobby.

Most of the floor of the auditorium either fell with the roof, or it was removed, I don’t know which. But the lobby just inside the front doors is still there, hanging above what was once a ballroom, and below the skeleton of a balcony. At one time the back wall had been moved to enlarge the space, and you can see the ends of the studs where they were cut and left hanging. When I went in today, a frame of the “new” wall was leaning against a rotting ticket counter, which had been left on top of about twelve inches of dust, debris, and boxes of miscellaneous storage.

Our task was to clear it all out. At first it was daunting, but like most clean-up jobs, it was essentially a sorting problem. A small amount of the material was salvageable wood trim or pressed tin from the ceiling. Wood and plaster could be sent to the city’s burn site. Plastic and anything that could be called “household trash” needed to be removed and sent to landfill.

It was a good lesson on hoarding. A large amount of the stuff we sifted through was thought by someone to be collectible. But if you collect more than you can manage, or if you fail to dispatch the things to other collectors, they inevitably decay.

There’s an enormous amount of work yet to be done, and it will take a mountain of money. We expect the job to take ten to fifteen years, or more. I may not see the job completed; but I’m glad I was here today to sort and shovel and participate in reversing the process of decay.