DARLINGTON – Stan Krahenbuhl needed a piece of lumber.
He was hired to work on the first floor of a Cream City brick building that would years later become home to a Bargain Nook, a Lands’ End resale shop. So instead of making a trek to the lumberyard, Krahenbuhl ventured up the steep wooden interior steps to the second floor, which was primarily used for storage.
It was here, in the 1970s and at the owner’s urging, that Krahenbuhl found the lumber he was looking for. He also learned a secret.
Today, the second floor is still used for storage, the paint has not stopped peeling and the plaster continues to fall from the walls and ceiling. Oh, and the stage, dance floor and ticket window remain intact. The original tin trough at the front of the stage where lanterns were once placed to reflect light up to the stage has also survived.
Only now there appears to be a future for the Driver Opera House, which hosted its last event in 1951, a St. Patrick’s Day dance sponsored by the American Legion.
“The floor got moving so much they said they shouldn’t use it anymore,” Krahenbuhl, 61, recalled last week as we toured the second floor. “This is how it looked when I saw it 40 years ago. Hardly anything’s changed. I just couldn’t believe that anything like this existed in town.”
The opera house no longer is obscure and by 2017 could return to hosting dances, plays, weddings, recitals and other community events.
Krahenbuhl, now head of maintenance at Darlington High School, is president of the board of directors of the Driver Opera House Center for the Arts. The organization has dozens of members working to raise $2 million for the building’s restoration.
The hope is that saving the building — its lower level ravaged over the years by the floodwaters of the nearby Pecatonica River — will help draw people to this city’s downtown. It would also provide more performance space for a community that knows nothing of stage fright and in the 1800s was home to the Parson Brothers Circus.
Despite its relatively small population — slightly more than 2,400 people — the community is home to a children’s theater group, the Darlington Community Theater organization and the POP Factory Players. That’s in addition to what’s happening on stage in the school district, which has the city’s lone major performance space.
The opera house wouldn’t and couldn’t replace the high school’s role as a community venue but would provide a more intimate setting for smaller productions. The stage, for example, is 15 feet deep and 25 feet wide, too small to host the 40-member cast of “Spamelot.”
The POP Factory Players is performing the Monty Python musical comedy today at 1:30 p.m. at the high school with another run this coming Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
“We would purposefully choose a show that would work there,” Candi Fitzsimons said of the opera house. “The possibilities are endless. It would be nice to have a variety of options.”
Fitzsimons, the city’s librarian, is doing choreography, costumes and lighting for “Spamelot,” and her husband and two children are in the cast. She’s also a lifelong resident and wasn’t aware of the opera house for 43 of her 48 years.
“As far as I knew it was storage for the store,” said Fitzsimons. “I love it, the history and the uniqueness of the venue.”
The Driver Opera House is not in the style of those found in Mineral Point or Stoughton that have permanent seating, balconies and a sloped design to provide better views of the stage for the audience.
Instead, it’s more like a dance hall. Back in its heyday, it featured rows of wooden seats for plays, but when a dance was held they could be slid out of the way.
The building at Amy and Main streets was built in 1883 by Josephus Driver, the patriarch of a prominent Darlington family. Driver built the opera house as a space to host traveling theater groups, local theatrical performances and dances but put it on the second floor so that retail could be housed below.
The building was owned from 1926 to 1999 by the Michaelson family before local barber Laura Jenkins bought the building in 1999 with the intention of restoring the historic structure and its opera house, which were placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1994.
Community members began organizing in 2007 and hired a consultant in 2008, and, in 2012, the Driver Opera House board of directors purchased the structure.
“It was really her vision,” board member and treasurer Steve Winslow said of Jenkins. “We knew it was going to be a 10-year plan.”
Winslow, 43, is also a lifelong resident of Darlington and was unaware of the opera house until about 2005. He’s now among those charged with raising the money for the project, which will be done in two phases.
The first involves $750,000 for flood mitigation to shore up the building’s crumbling foundation and move mechanicals and utilities above the flood line. The six-month project is scheduled to begin by summer’s end.
The $1.2 million second phase of the project will complete the restoration and bring the opera house back to life. It will include adding bathrooms to the first and second floors, a small kitchen and an elevator, and remodeling the first floor for the return of retail.
A fundraising drive is underway and has raised about $75,000. More than $10,000 was raised by recruiting 100 women in the region to donate $100 each, and a similar 100-man campaign has just begun.
But many donors are expected to give once the flood mitigation project is completed.
Naming rights will be sold for the curtain, ticket booth, stage and other parts of the opera house while foundations like Janesville-based Jeffris could also play a significant role, like it has with other state historic restoration projects.
“We are cultivating our major donors, but we have to get phase one done first,” Winslow said.
One of the keys is making it a regional project with support coming not just from Darlington but from arts and history buffs in Shullsburg, Mineral Point, Benton, Spring Green and Galena, Ill., some of the oldest Upper Midwest communities.
Krahenbuhl said his Lafayette County city has lost enough buildings from the floods. Losing another would be detrimental.
“The building is such a focal point of Main Street,” Krahenbuhl said. “When people see it, they fall in love with it. What’s the town going to look like if this is a parking lot?”