Piper’s Opera House getting facelift
VIRGINIA CITY — Piper’s Opera House is getting a facelift and now has the scaffolding to prove it.
The historic facade was built over an older, original building front. Howard Bennett, director of restoration, said the original wall is badly cracked. The only thing holding it up is its reputation.
“John Piper put a brick facade on the building to fancy it up for the opera house,” he said. “That’s when the arches were added, but the walls weren’t tied together very well. The original mortar is lime and sand, the same used at Carson City’s Presbyterian Church and it’s crumbling badly. You can scrape it out with a fingernail.”
Reno structural engineering firm Ferrari and Shields joined forces with Piper’s architectural firm, van Dijk Westlake Reed Leskosy of Phoenix for the project. It involves removing the interior wall and replacing it with steel-reinforced concrete.
“The historic outer brick fabric is being bolted to the new construction,” Bennett said. “Every other row of bricks is being tied down and once completed, the wall won’t move, but no one will be able to tell.”
The project will cost almost $332,000. The money will be acquired primarily through two grants: The Nevada Commission for Cultural Affairs contributed about $200,000 and the balance came from a federal Save America’s Treasures grant, administered by the National Park Service.
A gala fund-raiser is planned Oct. 25 and 26 at the opera house where guests are asked to dress in period or elegant western attire.
Business was booming on the Comstock in 1862 when John Piper purchased the brick building at the corner of B and Union Streets, current site of the opera house, for a business complex.
In 1867, he bought an opera house at D and Union Streets, but it burned in the great fire of 1875. When the town was rebuilt, Piper moved to its current location. Construction of the building was completed in 1878, but that opera house burned in 1883 and officials suspect it was more opulent than the one that stands today.
The wealth of the Comstock Lode waned in the 1870s and 1880s and the opera house ultimately fell into disrepair. Piper’s Opera House Programs Inc., a nonprofit organization, purchased the building from Louise Zimmer Driggs, great-great granddaughter of John Piper, in 1997 and efforts to restore the building have been ongoing ever since.
Bennett, who readily admitted to having a passion for the old building, said serious restoration began in 1999 and thus far cost almost $2.5 million. Most of the money was underwritten by grants.
Bennett said excavation of a basement floor and reinforcement of the auditorium floor will be the next two projects. The basement will be used to house ancillary services, like wardrobe rooms and public restrooms. After that, officials expect to start the cosmetic restoration.
IF YOU GO
Music, food, drink at Piper’s is planned Oct. 25 and 26 for the fund-raiser “Somewhere in Time,” to benefit restoration efforts. Donations are $500 per person on Oct. 25 and $50 per person Oct. 26. Festivities start at 7 p.m. Guests are asked to dress in period or elegant western attire. For more information, call the Opera House at 847-0433.