Preserving an historic building

Tom Klingman enters through newly installed doors at the Volga City Opera House. Most of the exterior work on the historic structure has been finished.

Renovators will now concentrate on the building’s interior, destroyed by a leaky roof.

Mother Nature has not been kind to the Volga City Opera House. Several feet of water gushed into the basement of the stately brick building in 1999, when a devastating flood swept through the town. Two years later, the roof began to leak, eventually causing as much damage to the main floor as the flood caused in the basement. The wood floor, once polished to a mirror-like finish, was stained and spotted. The custom-styled tin ceiling was falling away in chunks. The windows and doors now longer fit tightly enough to keep out the elements. The interior had a damp and lifeless smell.

The fate of the Volga City Opera House seemed certain: It was slated for demolition like other grand theaters built in Iowa between 1870 and 1920, and abandoned decades later. 

But one Volga resident was unwilling to let go of the town’s most distinctive and historic structure. Tom Lott was determined to save the building and return it to its former glory. He knew it would take time and money—and he knew he’d need to enlist support from someone as passionate about the building as he is. He called Tom Klingman, who initially declined to get involved.

“He told me about the Volga City Truck Cruise and how it would be used as a fund-raiser for the renovation,” Klingman said. “I was doubtful but then I went to the second one and saw how successful it was. I started thinking, ‘This could be really big.’”

Lott’s decision to involve Klingman was well calculated. Klingman’s parents, Dennis and Rosemary, were the last private owners of the building, and he had fond memories of going there. The Klingmans operated a popular restaurant in the building’s lower level, seating 200-plus people on a weekend night. They were forced to close after the 1999 flood.

Klingman and Lott formed the non-profit VCTC organization to help economic development efforts in rural communities. The opera house, which once played a big role in the town’s economy, is their first big project. The building was gifted to the organization.

“The Opera House has been many things,” Klingman said. “There was dinner theater here; I remember that quite well. It was also a place for concerts, a movie theater, dance hall and a reception hall. A lot of people around here have memories of coming here for various events. That’s what we’d like to return it to.”

So far, the roof has been replaced and the entire building as been tuck-pointed. A $15,000 grant from the Upper Mississippi Gaming Corporation was used to replace all windows and doors. 

“According to our insurance carrier, it’s now as solid as a brand new building,” Klingman said. “We’re pretty proud of that.”

The two men have now turned their attention to the building’s interior. The goal is to resurrect the original look using modern-day technology. For example, the original design of the ceiling will be retained but tiles instead of tin will be used. A matching wallpaper for the unique semi-circle balcony—a Klingman’s favorite feature—will also be put in place.

The floor will be refinished but seats will not be attached to the floor, which Klingman said would enhance the flexibility of the space. Chairs can be set for concerts; tables and chairs for dinner theater; and open space for receptions.

Unlike the Elkader Opera House, the Volga structure does not have an orchestra pit—and “Well, for one thing, the original building didn’t have one and we want this restoration to be as original as possible,” said Klingman. “Also, we’re not competing with Elkader. The different designs of the two opera houses provide opportunities for different types of events.

Both men have taken a hands-on approach to the renovation work. It makes sense for Lott, who lives in the area and is in construction. Klingman lives in Oelwein and works in healthcare. He’s not able to be around as much as Lott but he gets his hands dirty when he is there.

“We were both up on the roof when that work was being done and as far as I was concerned, that wasn’t a lot of fun,” Klingman said.

There were once more than 1,500 opera houses in Iowa. Today there are only a few hundred. Construction on the Volga City building was started in 1908 and the building opened in 1914. Klingman and Lott had hoped to celebrate the building’s centennial with a grand re-opening. Klingman admits that might be overly ambitious.

“The important thing is to get it done right,” he added.

By Pam Reinig, Register Editor



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