Opera House in need of public assistance

Water was running down the inside walls of the Fairmont Opera House on Saturday. Rain and melting snow were gushing through a hole in a corner of the attic at the rate of about three gallons a minute. The situation did not look like it would abate any time soon.

Although the damage caused a great deal of concern for Blake Potthoff, executive director of the Opera House, it was a phone call that resulted in the normally-eloquent administrator to give in to frustration and utter a couple of expletives.

Someone had called to ask if an elevator had been installed yet at the historic structure. When Potthoff replied no, the caller asked what they had done with the million dollars, referring to a $1 million bequest from the Marlin Milbrandt estate that the Opera House received in January 2018.

“It’s frustrating,” Potthoff said, indicating the water streaming inside the north wall. “We could put a brand new elevator in here, but if we don’t fix this, it’s not going to matter. This place won’t exist.

“With what we have to fix now, that million dollars will be gone before you know it. As great as that gift was, it’s not the solution to everything. That’s why we’re still asking people for money. It’s for unexpected things like this.”

The leaking began in the middle of February and become progressively worse with each passing day, only to be compounded by Saturday morning’s heavy rain. Water was flowing down the outside and inside walls, starting from the attic level and cascading through the auditorium and down to the offices and reception area in the basement.

“Even though you can see it here on the walls, just think of the all the places you can’t see it leaking,” Potthoff said. “It’s just one thing after another, and it’s bad. It’s really bad.”

He had just met on Friday with representatives from HGA, a Twin Cities engineering firm hired to do a structural report on the 118-year-old building. The report was a prelude to the proposed $10 million renovation of the existing structure and addition of offices, meeting rooms and a gallery, all ADA accessible.

“They could see daylight in the attic,” Potthoff said, pointing to the northeast corner of the building. “In those spots where they could see daylight, there is 8-10 inches of ice built up while it’s melting and running inside. Now we have the interior getting wet so it’s totally saturating the entire wall.”

He said the engineers indicated the roof was a crucial issue.

“They said the ultimate thing we’re going to have to do is replace the roof. The trusses are rotating. The walls are starting to sag out, and the roof is sinking,” Potthoff said. “Right now, everything is structurally fine. We are still going to have our shows.”

But he issued an impassioned plea for help.

“Everybody has a memory here,” he said. “If you live in this community, you have a memory here. Isn’t that memory worth something? Even if you can only give $25, that’s $25 more than we had yesterday. Whether it’s $5 or $10, you can help with this. It’s going to take everybody. It’s going to take money and volunteers and coming to our shows. It all makes a difference.”

Initial work will include taking off a portion of the roof, removing the snow and ice accumulation and patching the roof. When weather permits, the roof will be completely replaced as well as structural repairs to the trusses.

“It’s not in any danger of collapsing, but if we don’t do something…,” Potthoff said, letting his thought trail off.