SAC CITY – A giant auditorium from the early 20th century has succeeded in gaining Sac City national recognition.
After months of effort led by Bruce Perry, the Chautauqua Park Historic District, including the massive Chautauqua Pavilion, has now been added to the National Register of Historic Places.
The official designation came on Feb. 14, after about 18 months of work by Perry.
Perry hoped the recognition would encourage more visitors.
“There are some tourism benefits,” he said. “We’re trying everything that we can to get people to leave four-lane (U.S. Highway) 20 and come visit.”
This is the largest wooden Chautauqua building in the state, Perry said, and one of only three left standing. The 9,872-square-foot, octagonal auditorium has 33-foot sloping ceilings, evoking the feel of a large tent.
It was designed in 1908 by Proudfoot and Bird Architects to replace the tents used by the local Chautauqua association since it was founded in 1905. In an era before television and radio, the Chautauqua movement brought education, art and entertainment to small towns throughout the country.
The auditorium can hold 2,500 people, the current population of Sac City, Perry wrote in the NRHP registration form.
“Chautauqua Park is significant not only for its historical buildings, but as a symbol of a community working together to better itself,” Perry said.
Perry is a bit of an amateur historian. His large collection of old photos and postcards helped him in preparing the registration form. In addition, he was elected to the city council in November 2013 and began serving in January.
Perry is also involved in setting up a Friends of Chautauqua Park non-profit organization, to help manage grant funding for the park.
The park and the auditorium are still regularly used in the summer, said Mayor Barb Bloes.
“The Chautauqua Park is where our campground is,” she said. “We have a lot of activities that go on in the Chautauqua building. We even have weddings in the building in the summertime.”
The designation is a big deal for the town, she said, because it will help fund all the historical buildings in the park.
“Not only will we be on the Register so people find out about it, we’ll also be eligible for federal grant money to restore some of the buildings down there,” said Bloes.
Getting a historic district placed on the National Register is more difficult than just a building, Perry said.
“With a district, you have to deal with the boundaries of the district, with each property and whether it contributes to the district,” he said.
Perry spent many hours going over microfilmed newspapers and very old issues stored at the newspaper office. He also collected people’s reminisces on Facebook.
“I was lucky because I had quite a bit of the research done on it. I had quite a few of the photos, and knew a lot about it,” he said.
The park holds the Metcalf Cabin, the first home in Sac County, said Perry.
“It was built in 1854, then moved to the park in 1925,” he said. “Going into the cabin, it’s this real stark reminder of how primitive the conditions were, at least by our standards, for people to live in.”
There’s also a stone cabin built by the Work Projects Administration in 1939, which is undergoing renovation.
“We are restoring the windows,” Perry said. “They’re removed at this point, and they’re in Des Moines.
“They will take the windows that were there, and even the rotting sills, and they will restore them. My understanding is they embed them with an epoxy-like material, so as much as possible the original materials all remain,” he said. “It’s not like we’re putting in a vinyl replacement window, we’re preserving what is there.”
The fish-cleaning shelter is also slated for restoration. The two pillars which were once the park entrance will get working lights again, and some historic signage will be added to the park.
“That all should be done probably by the Fourth of July,” Perry said
In addition to recognition and grant money, the historic designation can help secure tax credits on any work done for preservation.
“Plus, I think there’s some community pride benefit to it,” Perry said. “It’s real easy for people to become anaesthetized to what’s in town, and when someone else says, ‘This is important or significant,’ I think it becomes a source of community pride.
“A way to kind of awaken the community and say ‘Look, there’s something pretty cool going on here. You’ve got one of three in the state, one of less than a dozen nationally. It’s right here, and you drive by it and ignore it most of the time as you’re driving out of town.'”