National Park Service U.S. Department of the Interior

National Register of Historic Places Program:
Akron Opera House, Plymouth County, Iowa

The National Register of Historic Places is the official list of the Nation's historic places worthy of preservation. Authorized by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, the National Park Service's National Register of Historic Places is part of a national program to coordinate and support public and private efforts to identify, evaluate, and protect America's historic and archeological resources.

 

[Photo]
Akron Opera House
Photograph courtesy of the Iowa State Historic Preservation Office

The Akron Opera House is a Late 19th and 20th Century Revival three-story building located on the corner of Reed Street and 2nd Street in Akron, Iowa. Akron is located in the northwest part of the state on the banks of the Big Sioux River, the border between Iowa and South Dakota. Opening in the spring of 1906, the Akron Opera House embodies the heyday of rural community opera houses (1890-early 1940s), when opera houses were built all across Iowa and the Midwest as rural communities developed places to house cultural activities.  Reflecting its importance in local community history, the Akron Opera House was listed in the National Register of Historic Places on July 11, 2012.

According to R.L. Poole and G.D. Glenn’s  1993 book, The Opera Houses of Iowa, the term “opera house’ in the 1890s was a more general term for “theatre”, but the term “theatre” was not used because for some audiences, the term carried negative connotations of sinful activity. An earlier Akron opera house existed in Akron from 1893-1906. The American Life Insurance Company of Des Moines, Iowa approached the owners of a lot near the Pembina-Sioux Railroad tracks and depot with an offer. If the residents in and around Akron bought enough life insurance from their company, the company would build an opera house on the lot. By the summer of 1905 enough insurance had been purchased for the deal to come to pass and construction started.

The American Life Insurance Company of Des Moines was founded in 1899 in Des Moines, Iowa and operated into the mid 1920s. Evidence has been found that the American Life Insurance Company of Des Moines assisted the town of Merrill, Iowa (about 20 miles southeast of Akron) in a similar venture to build an opera house in 1902. That building has long since been torn down. Although during the first decade of the 20th century dozens of opera houses were built in Iowa, no evidence has thus far been found to indicate that the American Life Insurance Company of Des Moines was involved in the construction of any others.

[photo]Akron Opera House
Photograph courtesy of the Iowa State Historic Preservation Office

Frank Whitcomb Griffith, a Fort Dodge, Iowa architect was chosen to design the building. The theatre was one of his first designs. He was active as an architect until his death in 1953 and the firm he founded still exists in Fort Dodge today as the Griffith Company. John A. Huxtable was the general contractor for the building. The Plymouth Hotel, the oldest commercial building in Akron at the time, was located on the site and was torn down in preparation for the new theatre. The $18,000, three-story building was completed early in 1906. The grand opening was on February 15, 1906 when “Home Seekers,” a comedy drama was shown before the theatre’s first audience. The first opera production was a musical comedy entitled “The Rajah of Altara,” performed on February 28, 1906. The grand opening was attended by vice-presidents W.P. Hanes and E.P. Barringer of the American Life Insurance Company. E.H. Youngstrom was the first theatre manager of the opera house and was followed by H.G. Clark soon after the opening and then A.J. Claeys in 1910 and finally E.F. Cobb and Ray Smith in later years.

The Akron Opera House Barber Shop, Ervin & Hitzeman Proprietors, opened in the basement. Attorney W.T. Kidd occupied one second floor office. The other was the land office of Johnson and Yeaton. The Union County Investment Company opened a general store on the first floor under the trade name of “The Princemakers,” with L.N. Crill general manager, William Simeon manager of groceries and meats with Antoine Smythe as the local store manager. Over the next  50 years commercial occupants were Dudley’s, Silverberg’s, K&K, Harvey’s Hardware, Wilfred Dirks hardware, Akron Auto Supply, and John F. Stecker, the last second floor occupant to move out in 1940.

[Photo]
Akron Opera House
Photograph courtesy of the Iowa State Historic Preservation Office

From the time of its opening in 1906 until the last public event, a boxing match, in 1938, the opera house was used for a multitude of community activities, both recreational and social. Starting in 1906 and ending in 1934, the Akron High School held its commencement exercises in the theatre. For many years in conjunction with graduation, a class play was also presented. Carrie Nation, the famous hatchet wielding, temperance crusader, was booked for a presentation in 1910. Traveling plays and concerts were presented through the 1920s. Dances, moving picture shows, church bazaars, declamation concerts, basketball games, political speeches, wrestling matches, revival meetings, and federal court witness interviews were presented or conducted until the late 1930s. During 1906-1938, the Akron Opera House was the central meeting place and entertainment venue for the entire community. Because of its size and optimum location it was an integral fixture in the community.

As the years passed, movie houses, the Empress and then the Norka, were built. Still later a newer high school was built with a gymnasium, and the American Legion hall was built with a dance floor. Uses for the opera house declined with these new community additions and it was finally abandoned as the community meeting place and closed and used for storage for the stores on the first floor. In 1946, John Klein Bekman, who bought the building from its original owners in 1913, rented the front offices of the second floor to a family who lived there until 1970. Their years living in the theatre were recounted in a book written by reverend Dennis J. Johnson, one of the children in the family. Elmer K. Bekman inherited the building in 1955 upon the death of John. He then sold it to Vern Davis in 1959, who sold it to Kenneth and Alice Harvey in 1968 and then it was purchased by the Akron Community Theatre (now known as The Akron Opera House) in 1974. It is still owned and operated by the Akron Opera House. The first floor commercial space has been occupied for the most part to this day with the present occupant being the new Horizons United Church of Christ.

[photo]Akron Opera House
Photograph courtesy of the Iowa State Historic Preservation Office

The Late 19th and 20th Century Revival Building features include round windows, brick quoining on the corners, commercial storefront windows with large glass panels, cast iron columns, and flat brick arches at the door. The opera house has a flat roof with a two-foot cornice.  Alterations over the years have included the removal of the grand staircase in the interior, and the removal of the original dressing rooms on either side of the stage. The fire escape was taken down and the north outside was covered with stucco to cover the brick. Sometime preceding 1938 the basement entrance from the east sidewalk was bricked over and closed with the sidewalk covering the entrance. Most of the windows on the east side of the building were bordered in for ease of maintenance and to save heat. Window wells and windows in the basement were bricked up. The front office area on the second floor was converted into a residence in 1946. A garage owned by the property owner to the north of the building was added in the 1970s and the roof was attached to the north wall of the opera house.

In 1970 the opera house was rediscovered and restored. Since that time it has been used primarily for its original purpose, a theatre. Also in 1970 Richard Jacobs, a drama teacher at Akron Community Schools, renovated the theatre as a school/community project, Volunteers rebuilt the stage, and cleaned out the entire second floor including a colony of bats. The stage was rebuilt with materials salvaged from the razed Trinity Lutheran Church. Theatre seats were obtained from the Hollywood Theatre being razed in Sioux City, Iowa. A fire escape was located and re-installed from the balcony and main floor. On September 4, 1970 the renovated theatre hosted its first production since the 1930’s, Paint Your Wagon. A new stage curtain was sewn by Anna Taylor (another new stage curtain was sewn in 2009 by the daughter of the 1970 seamstress, Karen Taylor-Mortensen).

[Photo]
Akron Opera House
Photograph courtesy of the Iowa State Historic Preservation Office

A stairway was installed behind the stage to the ground floor area which previously hosted a grocery store. That area was the remodeled with a bathroom, two dressing rooms, and a lounge for the actors. Bathrooms were installed in the front of the second floor where an office space had previously been. A small kitchen and lounge or waiting area was also placed in this area. In 1999 the roof was repaired and covered with a rubber covering to waterproof it.

In 2006 a fundraiser raised money to replace the theater seats on the mezzanine level with new seats that can be disassembled to be rearranged or stored. In 2007 a chair-lift for handicapped accessibility to the theater was purchased through the help of a grant from the Akron Community Foundation. In 2010 new flats and stage background were installed, plus new carpet on the entry stairs and the hallway between the box-office and the theatre. A new front door was also installed.

Excerpted and edited from Timothy J. Blum, Karen Taylor-Mortensen, Akron Opera House nomination, Iowa SHPO, July 11, 2012

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