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Couple undertakes restoration of historic Mancos Opera House

Long-term restoration project will start with code updates

A Mancos couple has begun the daunting task of restoring one of the town’s oldest buildings.

The Mancos Opera House, at 136 W. Grand Ave., was built in 1910 and originally housed a grocery, a drug store and a theater. It has been owned and maintained by VFW Post 5231 since 1955, but when the post decided to sell it this fall, Philip and Linda Walters sprang at the chance to buy it. They plan to turn it into a building that could one day be used by a local nonprofit as a headquarters and performance space, but they’re preparing for a long process.

Right now, the couple’s top priority is to get the century-old building up to code. It needs ceiling repairs, updated plumbing, more restrooms, a sprinkler system and a handicapped-accessible elevator, among other things. But apart from those changes, the Walters want to make the building look as close to the way it did in 1910 as possible.

“We want to preserve and respect the historic fabric that is still here,” Philip Walters said.

When it was first built, the first floor of the opera house had high ceilings, more open space and a glass storefront, he said. That changed as the building was modified to become the VFW headquarters, getting lower ceilings and more small rooms for office space. The building hasn’t seen as much use in recent years as it did in the past, although a few events are still regularly held in the theater. Philip Walters said he credited the VFW for helping the opera house avoid the fate of some of Mancos’ other historic buildings during the past 60 years.

“Particularly in the ’60s’ and ’70s, a lot of these old buildings either got torn down or (got) a lot of pretty horrible changes to them,” he said. “The fact that the building is still here is good, and we have the VFW to thank for that.”

Other changes were made to the building in 2002, when it was in danger of collapse. The Colorado Historical Fund financed an expensive remodel of the building, including the installation of stabilizing beams under some of the balconies in the theater and repairs to the roof. Because it is on the national Register of Historic Places and has been a recipient of Historical Fund money, the building’s exterior cannot be changed, Walters said.

The building still holds several historical treasures for those who know where to look. For example, on the first floor, some of the apparatus for a trolley system used to transport meat to the grocery 100 years ago is still visible. In 1965, a traveling group of high school theater students performed a play called “Little Mary Sunshine” in the theatre. One of them, Diane Hall, who would later be known as Hollywood actress Diane Keaton, left her signature on a wall in the “green room” where they stayed.

But many of the rooms that house these artifacts are in serious disrepair. The green room hasn’t been used for anything but storage in years, and can only be accessed by climbing over a railing near a steep staircase. Many of the walls show signs of water damage, and much of the building has poor ventilation.

“There’s a lot of things that are in rough shape in this building,” Linda Walters said.

Both the Walters are longtime historic preservation enthusiasts. Philip was involved with the 2002 project to rehabilitate the opera house, and he said he’s always looking for ways to support the theater. Linda is a member of the Mancos Valley Historical Society and has helped in recent efforts to restore the Mancos Common Press, which is across the street from the opera house.

Their current project is an ambitious one, the Walters admitted. They expect it will take about three years just to get the opera house up to code, and they will need funding assistance from the Historical Fund or another grant program. Linda Walters said the building will probably be closed to the public for much of that time. But Philip Walters said that once the necessary repairs and code updates are done, they plan to hand over the restoration part of the project to whichever nonprofit decides to use the building. By then, he said he hopes it will be ready for use as a performance space once again.

“In a couple of years, it would be nice if we were in the process of getting it in the hands of a community nonprofit,” he said. “I’d like to do the not-so-fun stuff that the building needs to last another 100 years, but then start getting out of the way of the creative people that can make it go.”

Ultimately, he and Linda said they want the opera house to become the training ground for more generations of young actors. Walters said he would also like to see an opera performed there one day. He said that, to his knowledge, the opera house has never hosted one.

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