This article is the first installment of a multi-part series about the historic Claremont Opera House complex, whose needed capital improvements and repairs are currently projected to be more than $1.6 million.
CLAREMONT — Window restoration workers from Sash & Solder, a restoration company based in Portsmouth, got underway this week on a substantial and significant undertaking to replace numerous stained glass window panes at the Claremont Opera House, several of which were broken or in danger of falling out of their frame, according to officials.
“Some [windows] have had holes in the single-pane glass for a long time,” said Felicia Brych Dalke, chair of the Claremont Opera House Board of Directors. “There is a particularly big one in the theatre. Every time I drove by I would just cringe.”
The Claremont Opera House aims in time to restore 13 total stained glass windows, each window consisting of 66 panels. Using $40,000 in grants through the New Hampshire Moose Plate Grant program, the board will be able to restore 40% of the windows in this current phase.
But how to fund the remaining cost of this $112,000 project poses a larger concern. Dalke said there will be a number of capital campaigns and fundraising initiatives on the horizon, many of which will involve collaboration between the Claremont Opera House and city officials since the Claremont Opera House is part of the City Hall complex.
That complex, which includes the Claremont Opera House, city offices and council chamber, needs some major work, according to Dalke.
The city’s newly approved Capital Improvement Plan for 2021-2022 identifies eight needed projects for the city building with an estimated price tag totaling $1.67 million
Approximately $750,000 is needed to replace the copper roof atop the clock tower, which is badly corroded. Officials say the issue is attributable to the roosting of pigeons, whose highly-acidic bodily waste over the years has destroyed the copper. Making the complex and council chambers accessible to people with physical disabilities would cost about $210,000. Upgrading the fire protection system to meet current standards would cost about $180,000.
As for the windows, the plan projects a total cost of $280,000 to weatherize and repair the complex’s windows.
A central window concern to Claremont Opera House officials is the John D. Bennett Atrium. The atrium, a renovated addition in the late 1970s, provides a beautiful overlook of the city from its stretched window wall and a mostly-ideal space for art shows, intermission breaks and small functions.
But architects built the atrium with some troubling design flaws, officials say. Due to insufficient roof flashing rain water pours off the roof and into the sealant of the atrium window. The contractors also reportedly did not build an adequate heating and ventilation system, reportedly because the project was over-budget and needed cost cutting, one city official explained.
Dalke said that, as a result, the atrium is incredibly difficult to keep sufficiently heated and cool during the winter and summer months.
“We have this beautiful space and we can’t use it,” Dalke said, who added that concessions are relocated during much of the winter because the atrium is too cold.
Dalke said that by addressing the overhead roof and windows the atrium will be able to retain the heat that currently escapes through the window-wall.
But money to restore and maintain the Claremont Opera House has been a longstanding problem in the city, Dalke said. In actuality, restoring the stained glass windows is supposed to be the city’s responsibility. The Claremont Opera House, a non-profit organization, oversees the theatre and its use, while the city remains responsible for the upkeep of the building.
“Windows was not a priority for the city but we needed to replace them,” Dalke said. “We made it a priority to help by kickstarting the project. Normally we wouldn’t be involved in the exterior of the building.”
Ideally, the Claremont Opera House would use grants from the Moose Plate Fund to address improvements and repairs to the theatre itself. In recent years the Claremont Opera House used these funds, as well as donations from Claremont Savings Bank and Mascoma Savings Bank, to clean and reupholster the theatre seating. Current needs include the replacing of wooden flooring on the stage wings, which is splintering, making the restrooms ADA-compliant and building a staircase from the audience to the stage, which is necessary for some performances.
City officials acknowledged that the complex has many dire needs, many of which result from a historical lack of upkeep.
“Once this build is A-okay, it will just be a matter of maintaining it,” said Bill Willette, city maintenance supervisor. “There has just never been enough money for preventative maintenance.”
Last year the city did repair and reshingle the complex roof (with the exception of the clock-tower) and installed a new heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) system in the main complex. Though the city had already budgeted for the roof project, the HVAC replacement was made possible through unanticipated one-time state aid provided in the New Hampshire 2020-2022 budget.
Dalke said she is currently concerned about the impact of noise generated by the new HVAC system on theatre shows, though the significance of that may not be assessable until the theatre can host shows with a live audience again.
The Claremont City Council also recently approved the appropriation of unanticipated money received through the Federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act to repair one of the complex’s two boilers that provides heat to the Claremont Opera House.
Dalke said she is optimistic about the future of Claremont’s downtown, whose revitalization efforts by the Claremont City Council include the $4.2 million Pleasant Street renovation, which aims to cultivate more pedestrian foot traffic and expand opportunities for social interaction, outside dining and cultural activities.
In that vein the Claremont Opera House’s restoration and preservation is equally important in that vision, Dalke added.
To learn more about the Claremont Opera House’s ongoing restoration efforts, including how to contribute to the project, visit the Claremont Opera House website at claremontoperahouse.org.