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Photo by Sarah Elmquist
Community Services Director Chad Ubl shows the detailed stenciling work on the walls of the theater in the Masonic Temple.

$10,000 gift for Masonic Temple drops restoration


by Sarah Squires

It’s a building that holds the fiery backdrop to hell, King Solomon's apartment, even a river runs through it, contained in the century-old Masonic theatrical drops. And although those unique drops are aching for the costly restoration needed to save them for future generations, and the historic temple itself is in need of repairs, help is on the way, from old fashioned elbow grease to a substantial cash donation.

The Winona City Council recently approved an agreement with Theatre du Mississippi (TdM) to occupy several rooms on the third floor of the building, purchased in 1979 by the city, also housing the Senior Friendship Center. The agreement provides that Theatre du Mississippi pay $1,020 annually, as well as provide volunteer labor for painting and other repair work.

Such volunteer labor has already brought some significant improvements to the building, after TdM volunteers painted, polished and rejuvenated the banquet room on the third floor. The large gathering spot, with a capacity for 70 people, was in such need of maintenance work that the curtains literally fell apart when volunteers removed them for painting and cleaning.

“Theatre du Mississippi has been using the Masonic Theatre for years for its productions,” said Margaret Shaw Johnson, TdM representative who worked with the city on the arrangement. “We really love the space. We love the drops, the physical space, and we’ve become very interested in the future of the Masonic Temple, as well. [Being in the building] puts us in a position to be more of an active part in seeing that the building gets restored.”

A little paint and labor might not seem like much, but taking a quick tour with Winona Community Services Director Chad Ubl shows just how far a little work can go.

Standing in the temple theater, with its dramatic ceilings, unique stencil paintings and massive organ pipes, he points to a bright patch of blue across the room. In contrast to the dim mottled pale blue covering the rest of the unique theater spot, the area looks as though a different color paint has been applied. No, says Ubl. It was just hand soap and water, illustrating the decades of smoke and dirt that has built up, and the transformation that can come with the help of dedicated volunteers.

But preserving and maintaining the Masonic Temple is a process that will admittedly call for more than just soap and water. Between the estimated $700,000 in restoration costs for the rare theatrical drops and the $800,000 needed to fix the roof above them to prevent further damage, preserving the temple and all its unique components will take time, and quite a bit of money. The city has the roof repairs included within its capital improvement budget for next year, a project that has to be completed before costly drop restoration work can move ahead.

Ubl said that city leaders are planning on launching a capital campaign to help raise the money needed to make sure the beautifully detailed drops can be restored. And while city leaders are still working on other pieces of the puzzle, like fixing the roof, one major donation was made recently toward the drop restoration that lends a glimmer of hope to those who want to see the historic theatrical scenery saved.

Clint Kuhlmann confirmed Thursday that the Coca Cola Bottling Company donated $10,000 to the repairs to the theatrical drops, as well as giving a $5,000 check to the Winona Public Library for the purchase of books.

“We were [at the Masonic Temple] to a program awhile ago,” said Kuhlmann, “and it was brought up that they had to be repaired. We figured it was time to get involved.”

For now, the building at the corner of Main and Fifth will have some new residents, a few new coats of paint, and a commitment from those who care about preserving a slice of Winona history. Johnson said that TdM folks are excited to see just what improvements they can make. “I think it’s an innovative arrangement. It seems to me that when the public cares about a project, a city project, in this day and age, I think we have to take more personal responsibility, The city does not have the money to put hundreds of thousands into that building, so what can we, as the public do? We can donate money, there are a lot of generous people in this community, and organizations and individuals that aren’t wealthy who could consider contributing some time and energy, and that’s what we’re trying to do,” said Johnson. “These are new times, we’re sort of trying to harness some of the public energy for this space, and see what we can do ourselves.”


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