A restored iconic building and, ultimately, a community destination

By Mark Nevenhoven

March 14, 2016
In 1895, Greenfield, Iowa, was recovering from a town fire and, as such, had just built a new, grand courthouse in the center of its town square, the hub of this small community of about 1,200. It was then that Edward and Eva Warren first announced their vision for continued improvements. On the east side of the square, the Warrens envisioned an opera house for the community, storefront for their business and living quarters for their family. Edward was an educated man who had become partner and then sole owner of a dry goods store in town. His wife, Eva, was instrumental to the business, as well as the idea itself; she was an accomplished musician and a strong supporter of the arts.

The E.E. Warren Opera House and Warren Dry Goods Store was designed by Charles E. Bell and John H. Kent, architects known for their courthouses and civic structures in the area. Completed in 1896, the 3‑story, 12,750-square-foot brick structure featured copper turret and accents, intricate stenciling, expansive windows, and other distinctly ornate and Romanesque-inspired details that gave it incredible character and charm. It became the grand lady of the Greenfield town square and brought theater, music and local acts to the community. It was a destination for culture, art and commerce.

As with many great things, this, too, came to an end. The auditorium had a short life as an opera house; the last documented act was performed in 1930. By 1940, the auditorium portion was in complete disuse. In 1971, the Warren Opera House enjoyed some national fame after being outfitted with a town clock and serving as the focal point for the dramatic final scenes of Norman Lear’s Cold Turkey”, a comedy starring Dick Van Dyke. Consequently, a group of Greenfield citizens formed the Opera House Heritage Center Association and managed to place the opera house on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979. However, the association fell short of its goal to generate support and interest in reinvesting in the community icon.

Greenfield faced further challenges, typical for small, rural towns in the mid-late century. Economic downturn, declining population, and a lack of professional and cultural opportunities stifled potential redevelopment of the historic building. Not even the retail space, home to the dry goods store and many later tenants, would remain in use after the 1980s.

Renewed hope prevails

The Warren Opera House was gifted in 1994 to Main Street Greenfield, a group focused on revitalizing the community’s main street area so local businesses and restaurants can survive in the future. In 1995, the town became a Main Street Iowa Community, a designation by the Des Moines-based Iowa Economic Development Authority that indicates the community’s interest in capitalizing on the unique identity, assets and character of its historic commercial district.

Four years later, the E.E. Warren Opera House Association (EEWOHA) was created to form a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization appropriately set up to redevelop the property. This new group of community visionaries was determined to make its plan for the opera house happen. The Warren Cultural Center would offer the community an auditorium, retail space, art gallery and two guest suites, closely resembling the Warrens’ original intent. The biggest hurdle was the initial hesitation from the community. The scale of the multi-million-dollar project seemed out of reach for the small town and belief in the project was hindered by years of talk with little traction.

EEWOHA put plans in motion that began with $3.3 million in public funding, coming from state and historic tax credits, Iowa Community Cultural Grants, Community Development Block Grant, HUD Main Street Iowa Challenge Grant, I‑Jobs Grant, Jeffris Family Foundation, Jeffris Heartland Fund and Grayfield Tax Credits. Once this large amount was secured, support from the community followed. The remaining $1.2 million was gathered through private donations in a mere six months. With funding for construction costs in place, EEWOHA moved forward with its agenda to acquire the adjacent Hetherington Building and Taylor Building, both originally constructed in the same era as the opera house for storefront spaces. Together, these two unoccupied spaces — in similar distraught condition — added 9,250 square feet of space necessary for the new programming goals. The association’s relentless work was starting to pay off. It was also just beginning.

The next step for EEWOHA was to coordinate detailed plans for the renovation of the building, and, for this, it turned to outside experts and began to assemble a team. Our firm, INVISION planning | architecture | interiors, which has offices in Des Moines and Waterloo, Iowa, participated in a competitive selection process. Our unique approach, centered on the long-term plan and success of the center, showed EEWOHA that it had a partner who also saw more than a great restoration opportunity. Our process, beginning with an in-depth discovery of the opportunities, proved that a straight restoration may not be enough for the Warren Cultural Center to thrive. We wanted to help keep EEWOHA going by imagining the future and planning for sustainability — not just fixing up the old building. We joined the steadfast efforts of EEWOHA and finalized the major subcontracting team by December 2010.

Detailed planning and design

Through a quick yet extensive discovery process involving many community members and even more questions, project drivers were set. The goal was not to reuse, renew or repurpose the building for something different but rather to recreate this grand old lady in its entirety — the structure, the architecture, the significance to the community and the use of the space. The significance of this project was that the very vision of Edward and Eva Warren was to be restored. In addition, we discovered ways to accommodate new needs and provide sustainable support for the future of the Warren Cultural Center by adding management offices, catering spaces, leasable offices and a flexible community center.

To meet grant funding schedules, we worked within a very aggressive timeframe and a firm $4.5 million construction budget. Constrained to very basic original plans and a limited number of historic photos, it was necessary to carefully conduct preliminary demolition to better understand the inner workings of the building. After peeling away a century of layers and change, we found a few surprises. Original, cast-iron decorative columns at the storefront and the original tin ceiling in the Hetherington Building were instrumental to the final design. Structurally, the buildings weren’t hiding major concerns and, because the programming largely mirrored the original intent, no major layout changes were needed.

By December 2011, designs and plans were in place for the arrangement and restoration of three buildings following the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation, as well as the construction of a 4,000-square-foot addition to house the code-required spaces and pre-function lobby — a 26,000-square-foot combined project space.

The exterior design focused on restoration of existing materials with the exception of new, energy-efficient storefront framing and a new copper cornice. For the addition, the design team purposefully crafted a complementary palette of similar materials used in a modern way to clearly identify the historic and new components of the building while tying together aesthetics.

Inside, remnants of the original lath were pieced together to uncover the hand-painted wall detailing pattern. A local paint restoration artist spent days investigating every historic room to uncover the original layers, discovering the original pattern further below what was believed to be the original in some cases. After the pattern was pieced together and colors analyzed by an architectural conservator, the artist was poised to recreate the decorative stenciling and hand paint each room, including the auditorium ceiling.

Structurally, differential settlement had created a need for additional support of a major masonry wall. Tie rods had previously been installed through the historic auditorium space, so the team planned to stabilize the wall by underpinning the original limestone foundation with cast-in-place concrete needle beams on micro-screw piles, allowing the removal of the unaesthetic tie rods without a threat to the structure.

Construction teams prepared to mobilize throughout the winter and, in early spring 2012, construction began. The grand opening was scheduled for a short 13 months later.

Passionate, local team

To give back to the community that helped fund the project, the owner and design team were committed to using local contractors, specialists, artisans and service providers when possible. This approach not only contributed to the local economy, but also generated a level of enthusiasm on the project site that matched that of the association.

This local, vested team also upheld the importance of quality craftsmanship matching the high standard of the original building, and this care shows in the details of the finished space. In the end, the team successfully delivered the project with a mere 2 percent contingency, something almost unheard of in restorations with unforeseen conditions. This achievement gives further testament to the team’s strong decision-making and thorough planning and management of the project.

Restoring the idea of a destination

Although it took nearly 30 years to see their dream fulfilled, Greenfield’s visionaries never gave up on what the Warren Opera House could be and what its restoration would mean for the community. For years, people thought the group trying to save the opera house was crazy. But the team’s mentality matched Margaret Meade’s, who famously said, Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

In April 2012, the Warren Cultural Center opened its doors to showcase this well-preserved example of Iowa’s 19th century commercial architecture. Just as intended, the Warren Cultural Center is again home to live performances, music and dancing, community events, gallery exhibits and weddings. In its first year, it held 21 shows, offered cultural enrichment and hosted many community events. Ed and Eva’s, the appropriately named flagship storefront, is a retailer of unique décor, jewelry and items from Iowa artists. The adjacent gallery and lobby areas display exhibits of art and photography.

The Warren Cultural Center has served as a critical destination for the community and visitors alike. In the years since the grand opening, more than 20,000 people have been in attendance at 71 shows and 166 events. In addition, more than 2,500 visitors and tourists have stopped by the center. For the local community, the Warren Cultural Center has given them a resource for entertainment, arts, culture and events, keeping them in the town of Greenfield, supporting their own economy. For visitors, it has brought many people to the town square who then stay, eat and shop right there in Greenfield.

Through the relentless efforts of passionate dreamers, the restoration of the Warren Cultural Center did more than restore an iconic building to its past glory. It restored a community attraction in Greenfield and the vision of the couple who started it all — Edward and Eva Warren. This historic opera house is, once again, a destination for culture, art and commerce.