Sandwich Opera House Arts Venue, Civic Center

Sep 10, 2013

Credit Guy Stephens / WNIJ

Our series of Community Close-ups continues with a look at the City of Sandwich, Illinois.  The city is perhaps best known for the Sandwich Fair, which bills itself as the oldest continuing county fair in Illinois.  But what about the rest of the year?  A place in the city’s downtown that has served as a focus of the community for generations. And it’s even older than the fair.

Nearly eleven years older, in fact. The Fair began in 1889. But the Sandwich City Hall and Opera House was completed by the end of 1878. As the name suggests, city offices, including the mayor, fire and police were located on the first floor, with the Opera House above. Sandra Black is Executive Director for the Association to Restore City Hall, which runs the Opera House.  She says right from the start, it played an active role in the community’s life, with high school graduations, women’s temperance meetings, and guest speakers and performers of all kinds.

 “One that always impressed me was a roller skating exhibition team from Aurora came to perform at the Opera House.”

Black says the seating was removable in those days, so they could clear the floor for the skaters.

The Sandwich Opera House
Credit Guy Stephens / WNIJ

But as time passed, other facilities took over many of the civic activities- the last high school graduation held there was in 1922- the fire and police departments moved out, and by World War II, except for the mayor’s office, the building was essentially abandoned. By the late 1970s, some spoke of razing the building and perhaps using the site for a parking lot. Black says at last, in 1979, the mayor appointed a committee that looked at what should be done.

 “They came right back and said we’d like to see it restored.”

So the Association to Save City Hall was formed. Black says she loved the idea from the start, and jumped at the chance to be executive director for the new Opera House.

Sandwich Opera House Executive Director Sandra Black
Credit Guy Stephens / WNIJ

The Association got the building placed on the National Register of Historic Places, worked on fundraising and securing grants, and began the restoration. Black says they wanted get it back to its original appearance, but it wasn’t easy.

“They peeled away 14 layers of paint, wallpaper, until they came to the first stenciling pattern that was ever used. What we have now is all hand cut from that original stencil.”

There were some setbacks-the back wall collapsed during the work, and there were other issues. But finally, on April 12, 1986, the Opera House re-opened. Black showed off one of the ways the building was brought up to code in a visit to the women’s bathroom.

 “This is the original city jail. Bars still on the outside windows. And this is probably the oldest graffiti in town. It’s on the wall outside one of the stalls. It says Sherry 1879.”

The original iron bars remain from when the women's bathroom was the city jail.
Credit Guy Stephens / WNIJ

Today, Black, says, the Opera House, puts on a more than a dozen concerts on its own, featuring a wide variety of performers, and hosts shows put on by other groups, like local community group Indian Valley Theatre.  She also points with pride to its children’s programming, which she says has served tens of thousands of kids throughout northern Illinois.

Jim Teckenbrock is Executive Director of the Sandwich Economic Development Corporation. He says there’s no doubt the Opera House has had an impact, and that its shows draw people from across a large region. Teckenbrock says antiquing has become a growth industry for the downtown, and sees the Opera House as a key part of that industry’s continued development in the city. Besides that, he says, it’s become a vital part of the community.

 “My youngest son graduated from there in his preschool graduation, and he still remembers that. We have weddings, we have open houses, all kinds of different stuff besides the shows throughout the year.” 

Sandwich Mayor Rick Olson says the Opera House is a gem that the city should be proud of.  And he says he knows from personal experience the space he calls a “well-used old girl” serves the community in ways beyond its programming.

Sandwich Mayor Rick Olson. The mayor's office has remained on the first floor of the building since 1879.
Credit Guy Stephens / WNIJ

 “When we rebuilt our church, we had church services here for two years. And we would come in and retrofit the stage sometimes around props and so on for our services. And other churches have used this.”

Richard Bryan is President of the Association’s Board. He says he’s pleased with the success of the Opera House.  At the same time, he says, the popularity of the space does have a down side.

 "In the theater it's called 'dark time," when we don't have the lights on. Then We're fixing stuff. And I'm running out of time to get stuff fixed."

Association Board President Richard Bryan
Credit Guy Stephens / WNIJ

And nearly thirty years of heavy use has taken its toll. A number of the theatre seats have ripped, and a campaign is underway to get them re-upholstered. Besides that, Bryan says, light and sound equipment needs to be updated, paint to be touched up, and so on.

Still, Black and the others say, they feel good about the future of the Opera House, because it has become so integral to the city and its residents.

Just as it was intended to be, in 1878, and today.