Thursday, February 25, 2016

A Theater for Wamego

The Government Building at the 1893 Columbian Exhibition
In earlier blogs I have shared the importance of theaters and opera houses to the early settlers.  (See "Saving the Old Opera Houses of the Plains," 12-11-2014; "Stafford (KS) Opera House," 8-7-2014; "St. John (KS) Convention Hall & Opera House," 6-26-2014 in the Blog archives.)  Many towns on the prairie, imagining continued growth as well as filling the early settlers' longing for the culture of cities they had left behind to homestead, built theaters larger and more grand than might have been expected of communities where surrounding farmers were still living in dugouts and soddys.  The desire for education for their children and culture for their communities was strong.

West: Agriculture, South: Agriculture, North: The Shipping Trade
The Panic of 1893 crushed the dreams of many Kansas homesteaders, as well as many wealthy men in the nation's Eastern cities.  But it did not crush the dreams of Wamego banker, J.C. Rogers!  (See last week's blog, "A Visit to the 1893 World's Fair Inspires a Theater," at 2-18-2016 in the archives.)  Among the treasures he bought at The Columbian Exposition and World's Fair in Chicago were objects to be used in building a theater in his hometown that would rival the theaters and opera houses of the great cities.

Steel & Industrial Arts
Construction began on The Columbian Theatre in March of 1892, even before he had traveled to the Chicago World's Fair, so he must have kept his eyes open at the fair for objects he could use in the spectacular theater he had begun.  Imagine his excitement when he entered the rotunda of The Government Building and saw eight massive paintings measuring 11 feet by 16 feet on display.  The paintings had been commissioned by the U.S. Treasury specifically for the fair, and when the fair closed, J.C. Rogers had bought six of them to bring home to Wamego.

Architecture & Building Trades
Whether he preferred to display them within a square frame to appear more like traditional art or whether the space he was working with seemed to require the alteration of the original shape, for about a century the art took an altered shape.  In addition, one of the pieces had a hole cut through it for a stove pipe!

In February of 1993, one hundred years after the Chicago World's Fair for which the paintings were created, the paintings were taken down from the walls of Mr. Roger's theater to begin the painstaking process of restoration.  Only then did the generation of Wamego citizens supporting the restoration discover that about a foot on each side of the canvas paintings had been folded under to create the shape and size Rogers had wanted!  At least the paintings had not been cut, but the folding exacerbated the fragile process of restoration.  The cost of saving the six paintings was $155,000 and necessitated cutting an enlargement in the height of a door to bring the restored paintings, now mounted for preservation, back into the second floor of the theater.

World's Fair Souvenirs 
While the paintings may be the primary showpieces of the Wamego Columbian Theater, they are not the only reason to visit this wonderful historic building!  There are many other interesting objects on display, including the original silent film projector used when the theater opened in 1896, an antique ticket window, documents from the early years, and more.  The theater isn't just a beautiful restoration of Kansas history.
World's Fair souviners

Rather it remains a vital part of the Northeast Kansas community, in use for live performances, a Summer Theatre Academy for kids, and rentals for wedding receptions and other events.  One specific group makes special use of the main floor gallery.  More about the Columbian Artist Group, and other interesting sites in Wamego next week!

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