VERMILION — Step out in style this weekend at the first 1883 Masquerade Ball at the historic Old Town Hall.
The event is hosted by Harbourtown Fine Arts Center, a “brand-new” nonprofit formed Sept. 1 to lease the building. The ball is a birthday celebration of sorts, a kickoff to the new tenant and for fundraising to restore the historic building.
The red brick, two-story building was built in 1883 and completed in 1884. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it was the center of city government for more than a century, housing City Council meetings and the police department, said Brittany Drost, founder and executive director of the Harbourtown group.
“There’s even a bricked-up wall that used to lead to the jail cells,” Drost said.
Drost owns Harbourtown Dance Studio, which she relocated to the Old Town Hall. She envisions other fine arts businesses, artists or musicians renting out small spaces on the building’s first floor.
Drost’s fascination with the old building started when she was a girl. Her father was once the mayor of Vermilion. While he was at Council meetings, she would roam the building and explore the old opera house on the second floor.
Originally designed to seat between 300 and 400 people with a balcony, about half the seats were taken out over the years because “they were squished in there.” The balcony is not yet ready to use, but the theater space has been restored to like it was when it was new, Drost said.
Built in a time when the local schools did not have auditoriums, traveling minstrel shows, concerts, theater productions and “medicine shows,” variety shows with the purpose of selling medicinal remedies, used the space until the 1930s. Since a community theater group stopped using the space, it has largely remained untouched.
She unearthed a 1905 article that mentioned prize-fighting contests were held in the opera house, although “the fine people of Vermilion did not condone it,” she said, laughing.
Some of the work already has been done, such as a new roof in recent years, and some electrical upgrades. The first project the group will take on will be the exterior brickwork to make sure the building is sealed up tight against water damage, she said.
Drost estimates that the restoration will take years to complete, and “likely millions,” but the nonprofit was formed to take on the effort to preserve the building. The group plans to apply for grants to aid in the restoration, which will be complicated by its status as a registered historic building. Specific restoration guidelines must be followed to qualify for funding, but Drost said there is money available for projects just like this, historic buildings being accurately restored to use for their original intended purpose.
“It’s just an iconic space in Vermilion. Everybody in Vermilion knows where the Old Town Hall is, but most people don’t even know about the opera house or seen it,” she said.