LEAD | More than three decades after a devastating fire torched one of the most iconic buildings in South Dakota, the Historic Homestake Opera House is returning to its original grandeur.
Bolstered by a $375,000 Infrastructure and Capacity Building Challenge grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) intended to generate $1.125 million in private donations, supporters and staff of the HHOH are identifying potential contributors to assist in funding infrastructure upgrades and advance the rehabilitation efforts at the historic building.
“The excitement is seeing the physical change in the theater, and that’s what’s most impressive to those who use this facility,” said HHOH Development Director Sarah Carlson, in a release. “We do what we can with what we have, and incrementally, we have been making significant changes and we’re seeing this work pay off. People are getting involved.”
To date, the staff and volunteers of the HHOH organization have raised $135,000 toward the challenge grant, which will release $45,000 in NEH funding this year and giving the “Saving Space for the Humanities” project $180,000 to move forward with plans and actual construction, Carlson said.
“It’s our first large federal grant since 2003,” she said. “Because we’ve completed all the architectural and engineering studies to identify our needs and further our plan, we were able to show the NEH we are prepared to handle the rehabilitation work.”
The Homestake Opera House & Recreation Building was a visionary architectural and cultural gift to the City of Lead in 1914, when philanthropist and Homestake Mining Company owner Phoebe Hearst had it built for the community.
For the next 70 years, it remained the “Jewel of the Black Hills,” featuring a 1,000-seat world-class theater, heated indoor swimming pool, library, shooting range, social hall, and bowling alley.
Tragically, on April 2, 1984, a fire devastated the theater, and it sat empty for more than a decade. Restoration efforts began with the purchase of the building and the formation of the nonprofit HHOH Society in 1998.
During the last 20 years, nearly $4 million has been raised and spent on restoration, renovations, programming, and operations. The 24,000-square-foot building is listed within the historic district of Lead, SD on the National Register of Historic Places, and is designated a National Landmark of American Music.
The iconic structure currently hosts 40 dates annually dedicated to theatrical, musical, and educational programs and tours with 10,000 attendees participating per year.
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“The HHOH continues to make progress, although much of this progress is not visual,” said Jay Jacobs, president of the HHOH board of directors. “We have been working with TSP Inc. to finalize a phased plan for restoration and rehabilitation of our building. There has been much thought and effort in constructing a plan to restore the historical elegance of our facility, yet ensure that we modernize to comply with ADA and safety standards while embracing current technology such as a new sound system and lights.
“It is extremely important to the board that we preserve our building’s historic grandeur, but also ensure our facility has utility — a platform to continue to serve the community,” Jacobs said.
To that end, Jacobs said the HHOH board has made great strides over the last 18 months, hiring a part-time grant writer, a full-time development director, and securing the NEH grant, allowing fundraising, planning and restoration efforts to advance significantly.
“This historic facility was created by early leaders of the Homestake Mine and Lead to give miners, merchants and their families a place to experience entertainment as well as gain knowledge and culture,” Jacobs explained. “Our building represents a significant example of what one does to develop and maintain culture within a community. It is why great cities or communities since the founding of Alexandria in Egypt and before have done such work. It is important to retain history.”
For those who knew the Homestake Theater, or “Rec” before the 1984 fire, the building remains a special place of memories instilled from swimming in the pool, reading in the library, or attending Saturday morning matinee movies in the theater, Jacobs said.
In more recent times, those memories may have been fostered by attending the Black Hills Cowboy Christmas concerts and dance, the Festival of Trees, a wedding, a play, or a performance by the Red Willow Band, he said.
Those experiences, as well as the recent NEH challenge grant, are causing advocates of the arts and supporters of the Homestake Opera House to reconnect with the facility and consider their own contribution to a place that has been making memories for more than a century, according to Carlson.
“This grant helps to instills confidence in us from individual donors,” Carlson said of the grant award. “Some of those people who have been loyal contributors to several of our completed projects are now seeing the fruits of their donations and, alternatively, there are people who have been attending our performances and presentations who understand more clearly the need for this to happen now, rather than where we were five years ago. We are ready for the next phase, and this challenge grant is helping us all move forward.”
Carlson noted that project’s most immediate challenge is raising nearly $400,000 in private donations between now and next July to take full advantage of the NEH grant. Prospective donors should understand that their contributions will receive a proportional match from the NEH and assist in the long-term advancement of restoration and programming activities at the famed facility, she said.
For more information, to make a gift, or to discuss a contribution, visit homestakeoperahouse.org or call 605-584-2067.