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Flood-Ravaged Historic Opera House Sings Again as Lofts

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Here now, Past Lives, in which Curbed contributor Chris Berger explores what some of the country's most interesting residential buildings used to be before they became livable homes. Care to suggest a building with a fascinating past life? Do drop us a line.

With all the bars and brothels, the American frontier didn't have a whole lot of cultural offerings. Opera houses were the exception. The entertainment venues brought a boom town credibility and offered citizens a lifeline to the rest of the civilized world. Grand Forks, N.D., joined the enlightened communities in 1890 when the Metropolitan Opera House hosted its first performance. More than a century later, the building again played an important role in Grand Forks history.

A group of investors, led by Great Northern Railroad owner James J. Hill, put up $91,000 to build the Met. The flashy brick and brownstone exterior was designed in the Richardsonian Romanesque style and was heralded as the finest opera house in the upper Midwest. In addition to operas, the Met hosted vaudeville acts, political speakers, and commencements. Magician Harry Houdini once graced the stage, and the March King, John Philip Sousa, and his band performed there twice. The Met first showed movies in the early 1900s, the beginning of its decline. In the 1940s, the building became a bowling alley, café, bar, and apartments.

Grand Forks, a city of about 50,000 people at the confluence of the Red and Red Lake Rivers, flooded regularly since it was founded in 1881. Earthen barriers provided some level of security, but no one foresaw the devastation caused by the 1997 flood. The Red River was predicted to crest at 49 feet in Grand Forks. It topped out at 54.35 feet—26 feet above flood stage. Once the dikes ruptured, water surged up to three miles from the banks. The mayor ordered out 90 percent of the residents, the most evacuated from one place in the U.S. since Atlanta was emptied during the Civil War. On top of that, a downtown fire eradicated 11 historic buildings. The losses were estimated at $1 billion.

Though it survived the flood and fire, the former opera house faced yet another threat when the Army Corps of Engineers revealed plans to raze its block in favor of a new water control system. The Grand Forks Preservation Commission balked at the further loss of the town's historic fabric and secured funding to study adaptive reuse possibilities. The Army Corps ultimately tweaked their plans and spared the Met's block. The buildings across the street were not so lucky.

Assisted by $600,000 in federal funding, JLG Architects redeveloped the building into the Opera House Lofts. The clunky replacement windows and doors were peeled away and historically accurate fenestration assumed their place. Further, the intricate masonry was repaired and cleaned. Inside, the water-damaged floors were scrapped. The former bowling alley in the back was rehabilitated into seven residential lofts, and a commercial unit was carved out toward the front. The upper floors became 14 luxury apartments. Rents range from $600 to $1,000 per month.

In 2006, the first residents moved into the Opera House Lofts. Today the downtown is abuzz with new shops, restaurants, and homes. But for all that is new, a critical piece of the city's past has proven valuable in its revitalization.

· JLG Architects [official site]
· Metropolitan Opera House (PDF) [National Register]
· History of the Metropolitan Opera House [University of North Dakota]
· Opera house being revived [The Bismarck Tribune]