Piper’s rebirth could help light up Comstock Lode
VIRGINIA CITY – Nearly two years into a five-year rehabilitation project, Piper’s Opera House is resuming its role as the Comstock’s cultural center.
With the recent addition of a fire sprinkler system, modern heaters to replace the wood stoves and the elimination of outhouses in favor of interior, handicap-accessible restrooms, the 115-year old building now is suitable for year-round use.
“We’re having some benefit performances. Metropolitan Opera stars will appear and we’ve had some corporate entertaining,” said Andria Daley-Taylor, in charge of development and stewardship for the nonprofit Piper’s Opera House Programs Inc. foundation that has purchased the hall.
“Of course, the Nevada Shakespeare Festival has many performances planned.”
She said the foundation was formed in 1997 by “a bunch of preservation activists and local theater people” to find a way to buy the opera house from the founder’s descendants and restore it.
So far, seismic retrofitting has been completed, Piper’s has a new roof and waterproofing, insulation and siding on an exterior wall. A fire sprinkler system has been installed and other work completed to bring the theater up to safety codes, Daley-Taylor said. And there are the restrooms, heating systems and a new main stairway.
“We want to light up the town,” Daley-Taylor said. “We want to keep people in town later each day and for four seasons.”
She said that a decrease in evening commerce for Virginia City establishments coincided with the passage of stiffer drunken-driving laws in Nevada in the past decades.
“People just didn’t want to take a risk driving back down the grade,” she said.
The laws won’t get any more lenient, but Daley-Taylor said the foundation hopes a full schedule of performances at Piper’s will hold tourists in the community in the evenings and past the end of summer each year.
“If they’re staying in VC for a show, they’re having dinner at the restaurants or visiting the shops, too,” she said.
The opera house last housed regular performances in the 1970s and early 1980s under the ownership of John Piper’s great-granddaughter, Louise Zimmer Driggs, and her daughter, Carol Piper Marshall. They subsequently held tours of the building and its furnishings, but the family chose to sell the building in the mid-1990s.
The formation of Piper’s Opera House Programs Inc. permitted the preservations to apply for and accept grants, loans and donations. Daley-Taylor said about $2 million has been raised and spent on the restoration so far.
The available funds have been expended and restoration work will continue to July when the next funding cycle begins, she said. Heavy work will be postponed until after the Shakespeare Festival’s summer schedule has ended.
“We’ll complete the outer walls and an ADA access ramp on the north side. The ramp will be set into a terraced garden between Piper’s and the Knights of Pithias Hall,” she explained. “Both buildings will share the access ramp and the garden will be a wonderful setting for receptions.”
A restaurant and bar eventually will be built in the southeast corner of Piper’s, the spot originally known as Piper’s Old Corner Bar, she said.
The preservation and restoration effort is attempting to retain as much of the original material from Piper’s as possible. Caroline Cardinale of the Shakespeare Festival said workers found a large number of the original lathe strops used for the coed areas beneath the balconies, so those areas can be restored with original materials.
But, in a way, little of Piper’s is truly made of the original materials. The original Piper’s burned in Virginia City’s Great Fire of 1875. Piper rebuilt it, only to lose it to flames again in 1883. The present third incarnation, built with ingenuity and limited funds, includes recycled material such as timber pulled from abandoned Comstock silver mines.
The foundation continues to seek grants and conduct fund-raisers to complete the restoration of Piper’s.
A “wine-tasting gala” is set Feb. 26, titled, “I’ll Be Seeing You,” and featuring an 18-piece big band from Lake Tahoe. Lt. Gov. Lorraine Hunt is also on the evening’s playbill, singing as part of the Mary Kay Trio.
Foundation memberships are available at contribution levels from $15 to $10,000 annually.
And you can buy a salvaged brick from the 1860s for $100.
Piper’s Opera House Programs Inc. can be contacted at Drawer J, Virginia City, NV 89440.