The restored Wright Leppien Opera House Block was dedicated in October 2019, its redevelopment fueled entirely by community and college benefactors. It shines as a landmark to Alma’s history and a symbol of town and college working together for community revitalization.
Alma Opera House: An Extended History
The historic Alma Opera House Block has survived wind, storm and fire for more than a century, thanks to the quality workmanship of its original builders. Gutted by fire in 2010, the building was saved from imminent demolition and redeveloped with an eye to its original character and integrity. More than just a hardy building, the Opera House Block symbolizes the resiliency and strength of the City of Alma and its people.
The Opera House Block was built from 1877 to 1880 by Saginaw lumber baron Ammi Wright. There was need for a new building to house a branch of Wright & Dawson, his celebrated Saginaw department store, and so construction commenced on the corner of State and Superior streets. Farmers brought large amounts of stone to the site, and local workers dug the basement. Soil from the basement excavation was carted down State Street for use in Alma’s first dam, which was being built across the Pine River.
Ammi Willard Wright
Ammi Willard Wright was a lumberman, businessman, philanthropist and civic leader whose business success and generosity placed his stamp on the early development of the City of Alma. In addition to the Alma Opera House Block, Wright constructed the Alma Roller Mills, the Wright House hotel, the First State Bank of Alma, the Alma Springs Sanitarium, the Alma Sugar Company plant and the Alma Manufacturing Company gasoline engine plant. He also was instrumental in the 1886 founding of Alma College, donating 30 acres of land and more than $300,000 to found and sustain the institution in its early years.
A New Vision
Construction of the Opera House Block stalled for a year when Wright’s partnership with James Dawson dissolved. When construction resumed in April of 1879, Wright had decided to build a much larger building, and the basement was enlarged. Soil from the new excavation was used to fill a low spot by the railroad tracks, where a grain elevator was about to be built.
A Strong Foundation
Wright announced that a bank would be housed in the building, and a heavy foundation was built in the basement to support a vault. He also announced that five stores would be established on the first floor. Offices and a ballroom would occupy the upper floors. Thousands of cream-colored bricks for the new building came from an Alma brickyard. Scaffolding went up as framing, and brick walls rose. Masons displayed their talents in the arched windows and the amazingly detailed cornice that still survives on the building today.
The Opera House Block was completed in 1880 at a cost of $20,000, an astronomical sum to the citizens of the small town of Alma. The building featured a fire-proof roof, arched windows with keystone bricks, and the elaborate brick cornice. Wright’s department store on the first floor offered a splendid array of goods generally not found in a small town’s mercantile. Other original tenants included the post office, a hardware store and a bank. Further renovations occurred in 1897 to update the commercial spaces as well as to add electricity and heating.
The Heart of Alma
The opera house ballroom became the town’s meeting place. It was the venue for numerous theatrical productions, concerts and public lectures. Graduation ceremonies were held here. The establishment of Alma College in 1886 was announced at a public meeting in the opera house. The building served as a hub of social and economic activity.
The Masonic Temple
Ammi Wright died in 1912, and the building was sold to a real estate company. In 1918, the upper floors were leased to the Masonic Lodge, and the opera house ballroom became the Masonic Temple. When the Masons moved to a new location in the 1960s, the ballroom stood empty and was used sparingly.
The 2010 Fire
On Oct. 14, 2010, the Opera House Block caught fire, leaving its interior gutted. Following the fire, engineers were amazed to find the building’s structural foundation still sound. Ammi Wright had built a fire wall that prevented the spread of the flames, and the exterior walls had been constructed with foot-thick bricks. Kurt Wassenaar, an investor with local roots, purchased the Opera House Block and saved it from imminent demolition with a vision to redevelop the building true to its original character and integrity.
Ownership of the Opera House Block transferred to Alma College in December 2017, and in August 2018, Alma Mayor Greg Mapes and Alma College President Jeff Abernathy announced a redevelopment plan to restore the building to its historic features with apartments for Alma College students on the upper floors. In 2013, the Alma Opera House Block was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The restored Opera House Block was dedicated in October 2019, its redevelopment 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 with a lead gift by the Leppien family. Today, the Wright Leppien Opera House Block shines as a landmark to Alma’s history and a symbol of town and college working together for community revitalization.