HELENA – In its prime in the 1880s, the Historic Ming Opera House drew elegantly arrayed crowds of 1,000 to its performances.
Today, the once nationally acclaimed theater is in search of a new owner.
One of Helena’s most cherished and unique historic buildings, which is now known as the Consistory Shrine Temple, is on the market for $495,000.
The sale price is roughly the value of the land it stands on, said Realtor Randall Green of Green & Green Realty Associates, which is listing the property.
Located at 15 N. Jackson St., it’s been owned by the Consistory Shrine Temple Association since 1912-13. The 20,000-square-foot space includes the main theater building with a lower level banquet hall plus the adjoining Helena Light Co., housing office, storage and meeting spaces.
Built by wealthy cattleman John H. Ming, the Ming Opera House, opened Sept. 2, 1880, with “reigning theater queen Katie Putnam and the Hasenwinkle Dramatic Company,” performing “The Old Curiosity Shop,” according to a history of the building compiled by Everett Lynn.
Renowned throughout the Northwest, the opera house was styled after the circular plan used in European theaters and was illuminated by 120 gas lights throughout the building, generated by a machine in the stone cellar.
The elegant theater featured red leather seats, lavish hand-painted curtains and elaborate draperies, and it hosted such stars as Mark Twain, Otis Skinner, Eddie Foy and Marie Dressler on its stage.
It was also home to the Ming Opera Orchestra, which provided classical music for Helenans and the region before there was a Helena Symphony.
Putting the building up for sale was an extremely difficult decision, said Lynn Koch, a member of the board of trustees of the Consistory Shrine Temple Association.
“It was an agonizing process for us to go through to get to this point,” he said. “There is a certain number of people who think we should not go through with this. ... But most of the people want it preserved and made available for more of the public to use.”
“The overhead is eating them alive,” said Green.
Monthly expenses are about $5,000, said Koch.
The board is hoping the buyer would preserve the building’s unique historic character and treasures – such as its century-old, hand-painted theater backdrops and the 1915 Hutchings pipe organ with its 1,333 pipes, which was custom built for the building.
The national Organ Historical Society designated it as having “exceptional historic merit worthy of saving.”
Ideally, the board would love to make an agreement with the buyer allowing the various Shriner groups some continuing use of the building's space.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Kal Poole, managing director of Grandstreet Theatre, said of the sale. “It’s got a really incredible history. It’s been the scene of incredible performances. It has more potential value than the Marlow Theatre,” which caused a huge community outcry when it was bulldozed by the Urban Renewal Program in 1972. “I would hate to see it plowed under for condos.”
“The potential is immense,” Poole said. “The challenges are enormous.”
“Once it changes hands," he said, "there are a lot of things that need to be done to bring it up to code.”
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A very preliminary engineering study on fire safety and Americans with Disabilities Act improvements is estimated at $850,000 to $1 million, Green said.
Restoration could cost twice as much as code repairs, estimates Poole.
The historic hand-painted backdrops are “beautiful, absolutely beautiful,” Poole said. However, he noted they would be of limited value to a theater company. The scenes painted on them would only be suited for a few theater productions.
The auditorium, which is larger than those at the Myrna Loy Center and Grandstreet Theatre and smaller than the Helena Civic Center, could offer a mid-sized performance space for special performances, dances and special events, Poole said.
“If a beneficiary took it on, there would be a grateful community of people,” Poole said. “I’d love to be involved working with people who want to work for a solution.”
“I think the community wants to keep this historic building, but it would take a great deal of hard work ... and take a good amount of money,” said Ed Noonan.
As former executive director of the Myrna Loy Center, which is housed in the old county jail that was built in 1891, he knows firsthand what it takes to operate a theater space in a historic building.
“It’s the oldest theater space in Montana,” Noonan said, “but to use the space would take a lot of work. Part of the hard work would be some good planning.”
He noted it would be very hard for a performing arts nonprofit to acquire the building, bring it up to code and also raise funds for programming.
Although the venue space would fill some needs, what the community could really use is a venue that holds 600 to 800, Noonan said, which may not work in the Ming Theater building. The stage size is also limiting.
“First of all, it’s a significant building in Downtown Helena,” said Montana Preservation Alliance executive director Chere Jiusto, of the building’s historic value. It has history that makes it cherished. And it is one of the best Egyptian Revival buildings in Montana.
“The interior is fabulous, with the integrity of the stage and historic backdrops,” she said, noting the Shriners have done a good job on its maintenance and upkeep.
“It would need to be updated and renovated to keep it in good condition,” she said, which could make it stand for another century.
“People have talked for a long time about needing more theater space,” she said. “It would be a wonderful asset for the community.”
Various tax credits are available and there are ways to syndicate projects to bear some of the costs, she said. “It’s all doable.”
Other communities have successfully renovated ailing historic theaters, she said.
“The Fox Theater in Spokane is a fabulous example,” Jiusto said. It was in a neighborhood that had been declining, but the theater’s renovation “stimulated a whole arts community around it.”
The Rialto Theatre in Deer Lodge, which was destroyed by fire and then rebuilt by the community, is another example. “If they could do that, just think what we could do in Helena. It could be a wonderful effort.”