In only a few short months, the Greenfield Opera House will have a new lease – on life, that is. The building, which has been virtually abandoned since the 1920s, is undergoing a massive rehabilitation to become home to a restaurant, office space and an event venue. It’s all thanks to Jack Pugh and David “B” Rhodes, two men with a dream of helping Greenfield’s former jewel shine once again.
But to them, the restoration isn’t just about the building. It’s about the community. “Over 500,000 (visitors) a year arrive through Greenfield on their way to Stockton Lake,” says Jack. “Our purpose…is to help snag some of that for Greenfield.”
Owners of B’s Renaissance Renovations LLC, the partners aren’t strangers to historic rehabilitation work. Since they began the company 12 years ago, the duo has renovated 32 local historic houses, four of which are on Walnut Street in Springfield. The opera house is their biggest project to date, offering a new challenge and a great reward.
After acquiring the property, one of the first things the duo examined was the structural integrity of the building – which quickly proved to be a pressing concern. “The building was about ready to collapse on itself foundation wise,” says B.
Of course, the word foundation can come with a scary price tag, and this building – especially based on its size and condition – isn’t an exception. “(It was) huge for the area and huge for the period,” says Jack of the building, who notes that they’ve sunk nearly $60,000 of a $500,000 budget in the project so far. The critical areas at the top of the to-do list included repairing the roof, addressing fissures in the brick walls and doing some tuck pointing.
Although Jack and Pugh have the fundamental know-how behind the project, they’ve worked with other people to ensure its success. One of those people is Ashley Rogers, a Greenfield native who created the blueprints for the renovation as her master’s thesis project. “She is committed to see this thing happen and turn this community around,” says Jack.
He also cites Drury University’s Center for Community Studies, which developed the Greenfield Community Vision Plan in 2007. “A key part of that effort envisioned this building being a key cornerstone of the square,” says Jack. “This is based on that vision.”
In their efforts to make the building usable today, Jack and B aren’t forgetting the history behind it. The opera house was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1998, and the pair is working closely with the Dade County Historical Society to preserve as many of the original details as possible. In fact, they say those details – which are often long gone on buildings of this age – are one of the things they greatly appreciate about the opera house. “We just love it,” says Jack. “All of this stuff was done by hand for 15 cents a day. And they did it because they loved it. I think that’s worth saving.”
A deeper look at the Greenfield Opera House
Storm damage did indeed cause a “tragedy” for the building’s façade—but the letters were saved and will soon rise again. “They’re fixing to go back up there, “ says B, who gives credits Meek’s for donating the lumber to build the necessary scaffolding for the façade’s repair. “We’re going to repair it like they built it.”
Also, a close look reveals small holes in the circles between the masks. This was quite intentional: Back in the day, those holes were part of a complex system that helped ventilate and cool the building.
It’s thought that the most notable name to grace the stage was William Jennings Bryan, a three-time U.S. presidential candidate who made a stop in Greenfield on his campaign trail. Those who came to hear Brain speak would’ve sat in the theater’s original seats, pictured at right. Those same seats will be reinstalled in the theater during its restoration. Additionally, when the orphan train came west, one of its stops was at the opera house. Orphans stood on the stage, waiting for prospective families to decide whether or not to take them home.
A trained eye might notice the Eastlake style evident throughout the building. This style, named after British architect and interior designer Charles Eastlake, featured artistically complex designs and was popular in the latter half of the 19th century. It is obvious at the opera house in the double-hinged doors to the theater, door plates and exterior handles.
At the Greenfield Opera House, walls really can talk. Signatures and well wishes from past performers, some dating back to the 1800s, scrawl as a ghost writing across the crumbling plaster of the building’s upper stories.
A mutual acquaintance introduced Jack Pugh and David “B” Rhodes when Jack was working on his first Victorian home restoration. As they say, the rest is history. The duo worked on a few projects together, featuring Jack as the financial manager and B as the contractor, before they decided to officially form their own company. Surprisingly, neither of them has an official background in construction. Jack is a retired senior naval officer with master’s degrees in child development and public administration, and B has a degree in mathematics. “But I love building things,” B says. “There’s no other way to put it.” Both of the men live in Greenfield – in fact, B relocated there specifically because of the opera house project.
The Greenfield Opera House was popular in its early days, drawing crowds to see comedians, musicians and wowed listeners with Edison’s Talking Machine – today known as a phonograph – on Halloween night in 1889. There was even a stop by the Uncle Tom Cabin Company, an act which featured Shetland ponies, donkeys and bloodhounds to sniff out the production’s central character.
Despite a promising start, the opera house just never reached its full potential. “By 1920, electricity came along and movies replaced theaters,” says Jack. The last high school graduation was held there in 1920, and a few years later it was temporarily used as a court house while the new one was under construction. But between the mid-1920s and the late ’80s, it sat vacant.
A group of local citizens, known as the Opera House Cooperation, tried to save the building as its centennial approached. They eventually purchased it and worked with the Dade County Theatre Company to renovate certain parts of the structure. Their efforts did stall the building’s decline, but it had been left unattended for so many years that the theater soon became more of a white elephant than a gem. According to Jack and B, the opera house’s last performance probably occurred around 2005.