February 18, 2013
The historic Ammi Wright Opera House in downtown Alma has survived wind, storm and fire in the more than 130 years since it was originally constructed.
Even though the 55,000-square-foot building on the corner of State and Superior streets was gutted by fire in 2010, the structure has proved hardy, thanks to the quality workmanship of its original builders. Representatives from the National Historic Trust have, in fact, called the Alma Opera House one of the best-preserved buildings in the state.
Thanks to Kurt Wassenaar, an investor committed to revitalizing the downtown Alma business district, the Opera House is undergoing major renovations that will restore its historic features while providing new retail opportunities on the ground floor and student apartments on the second and third floors.
For Alma College, the residential space addresses a major need as the college strives to continue its enrollment growth.
“This is an opportunity to leverage the presence of the college for the benefit of the downtown,” says Alma College President Jeff Abernathy. “Working together with investors and community leaders to place student residents downtown is beneficial long-term for both the college and the community.”
Discussions with community leaders about placing students downtown began before the 2010 Opera House fire, though the fire hastened the planning, says Abernathy.
“For both the city and college to thrive, we must look at the resources we already have instead of waiting for resources that may never come,” says Abernathy. “College students are the likeliest resource for downtown living.
“As a college, we are committed to a sustainable future,” he says. “That’s why we do not plan to build new free-standing residence halls on campus. The city of Alma has beautiful buildings downtown; let’s use them.”
The student housing arrangement is part of an agreement with Wassenaar, a Virginia architect who purchased the Opera House following the 2010 fire intending to restore the building to historic detail and quality. A native of Alma, Wassenaar is president of Wassenaar Design Group, an architecture, planning, engineering and development company.
Wassenaar is transforming the building’s upper levels into residential units and support spaces for about 50 Alma College students while creating 18,000 square feet of retail space on the ground floor. The building will have a catering kitchen, elevator, sprinkler system and fire stairs.
In recent months, construction workers have reinforced the walls with steel beams, restored the masonry and exterior brickwork, and installed a new roof, floors and windows. If construction stays on schedule, the apartments will be completed in August 2014, with students moving in at the beginning of the fall semester.
“The residential apartments will have private rooms with big windows grouped in suites with kitchens and bathrooms, much like the Wright Hall model,” says Wassenaar. “The Opera House space itself will be restored essentially as a large living room — a multipurpose space that can hold up to 150 people for studying, presentations or events.”
The ground floor will accommodate seven retail bays, including a laundry. Wassenaar also hopes to attract a grocery shop, a coffee/lunch café with outdoor seating, and a bistro-style dinner restaurant.
“Having grown up in Alma literally four blocks from the Opera House, I always admired the beauty of the building and its construction,” says Wassenaar. “It is worth saving because it is a significant piece of Michigan history. It was one of the first mercantile buildings in central Michigan.
“We are renovating the building as a National Trust Project, which imposes some costs and extra care, but it’s worth it,” says Wassenaar. “It’s important to preserve small town America. It’s the right thing to do.”
Ammi Wright played a significant role in both the founding of Alma College and the early development of the town of Alma. The connection excites Wassenaar.
“This project couldn’t happen without both the college and community working together,” says Wassenaar. “Dr. Abernathy’s vision to engage the city and bring students into the fabric of the city is important. I’m very excited about this partnership with Alma College.”