Built nearly a century ago, the ornate Homestake Opera House in Lead was the center of community life providing residents a social meeting place for operas, theater performances, concerts, and other cultural activities. A fire in 1984 destroyed much of the theater and roof; however, the integrity of the building remained. Since then, community members have worked to bring the Opera House back to the grandeur of its early years… a goal that Erica Merchant, Black Hills State University art instructor, is helping to make a reality.

Merchant has spent several months restoring the intricate details of wall panels surrounding medallions in the opera house’s foyer. She started the process in April with the help of Dean Kalamos, a master painter from Washington, D.C., who works as a lead decorative painter at the Library of Congress.

“He spends each day taping, measuring, and decorating the most elaborately painted building in the United States,” Merchant said of Kalamos’s work at the oldest federal cultural institution in the United States.

Under Kalamos’s guidance, Merchant helped recreate the motif which was repeated around the foyer. The two were mimicking a 100-year-old painting style, Merchant said.

Merchant especially enjoyed the process of adding gold leaf or gilding to everything that was to be painted. Once the gold leaf was varnished, they began the process of painting each panel using stencils to block in the geometric elements. After Kalamos left, Merchant continued the process by meticulously outlining every form with tiny pinstripes.

In addition to her work over the summer, Merchant has recently been commissioned by the Historic Homestake Opera House Society to recreate two paintings from the 1946 medallion themes, including a Lion and Ram. These medallions were part of the original 1914 theme and remained prominent fixtures until the fire.

The recreation has been a difficult process since there was only one fire damaged image of a tiger that remained. She will complete the restoration this month with the medallions placed next to the opera house concession stand.

Merchant said she has enjoyed being a part of transforming the historic opera house into the community center it once was.

“Creating something for the identity of the community – its values and directed goals – is heartwarming and nostalgic,” she said.

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