Alma College and Alma community leaders gathered on Tuesday, Oct. 8, to officially dedicate the renovated Wright Leppien Opera House Block, restoring a community landmark constructed 140 years ago by the 19th century businessman and civic leader Ammi Wright.
Joining Alma College President Jeff Abernathy and Alma Mayor Greg Mapes in downtown Alma for the ribbon-cutting were members of the Leppien family, whose leadership gift provided philanthropic momentum for the Opera House restoration.
“John, Cleo, Stephanie and Jeff Leppien have been extremely dedicated, generous and visionary in their support of this restoration,” said Abernathy. “In honor of that generosity and vision, we are pleased to officially name and dedicate the Wright Leppien Opera House Block.”
In addition, the Opera House ballroom was dedicated Zimmerman Hall in acknowledgement of a gift from the estate of Joseph J. Zimmerman, Class of 1961, in honor of his late parents, Joseph G. and Helen J. Zimmerman.
The restored 55,000-square-foot building on the corner of Superior and State streets features 15,000-square feet of commercial retail space on the property’s ground level and apartments for 39 Alma College students on the second and third floors.
The building also features performance, event and gathering spaces for community activities such as conferences and receptions.
“One year ago, we stood in this space and dreamed about how the city and the college could work together to invest in Alma and enrich the lives of everyone in our community by reclaiming and restoring this amazing building,” said Abernathy. “That day has arrived. I thank all the individuals and businesses who made a gift to help make this a reality.”
Mapes acknowledged his personal connection to the Opera House; his grandfather had a store on the street level, and he is a past owner of the building.
“What a difference a year makes,” he said. “The students have moved into their apartments and are living and shopping downtown. The first-floor retail spaces are filling, and I’m excited for these businesses to begin contributing to the economic health and vitality of our community.”
Constructed in 1879, the Alma Opera House Block was gutted by fire in 2010. The building was saved from imminent destruction when engineers discovered its foundation still sound, and plans were developed to renovate the structure true to its original character and integrity. Ownership transferred to Alma College in December 2017. Construction began earlier this year.
The project was funded entirely by community and college benefactors. In addition to a $1.5 million grant from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, donors provided more than $6.5 million in philanthropic support.