If civic duty had a frequent fliers club, Joan and Peter Rasmusson would hold platinum status.
The Dell Rapids, South Dakota couple have done more than their part to restore the town’s historic downtown. But they were reluctant to buy their first property, a down-at-the-heels opera house. Dell Rapids is Peter’s hometown. Joan had been transplanted from Boston to this town of about 3,700 half an hour outside Sioux Falls. Did they really want to make the investment?
But Joan is a woman of faith. “I knew I was here for a reason,” she said. “The opera house was bigger than me.”
She threw herself into the renovation. In doing so, she stumbled across historic treasures. Her crew found dozens of vintage movie posters that had been used as shims underneath the floor. Backstage, more vintage posters hang, alongside the signatures of long-ago stars scribbled on the walls.
You’d never know the opera house had been neglected for decades. As you enter the Grand Opera House’s first floor, you find the dining area for catered events and a 21-foot mahogany bar. The fresh green walls with white crown molding and the flattering glow of antique light fixtures transport you to a cleaned up version of the past. The old movie-poster-shims are framed on the wall.
The opera house itself is upstairs, as was the custom in 1888, when it was built. The Rasmussons chose a green, gold and burgundy color scheme to match the original wallpaper. Onstage, the original backdrop advertises Dell Rapids’ old businesses—banks, a pharmacy, a garage and the like. The town’s historical society are the backdrop’s official owners, but they have loaned it back to adorn its original home.
The Rasmussons do not shirk tedious details. The chairs are attached to each other by 12 screws each. Reupholstering, refinishing and, presumably, reattaching them took three months. Joan found a 600-pound replica of an old White House chandelier for $10,000. Whenever bulbs need changing, it takes three hours on a winch to come down and another hour to go back up.
After all this work, the first show in the restored opera house had to be something special.
“I wanted something that included kids or veterans, and/or glorified God,” Joan said. She had no idea what the show would be. Then while she was traveling, she met a woman in an airport who had written a children’s nativity play. Perfect.
Since then, the opera house has hosted plays, symphonies, concerts and dances. It holds a special place in town, connecting Dell Rapids’ past to its future. Many locals have direct associations with the old building. Mayor Scott Fiegen’s grandmother played piano for silent movies in the opera house. Fiegen greeted visitors on a summer 2012 tour of the opera house wearing an In-N-Out Burger T-shirt, belying his sojourn in southern California. However, when it came time to raise a family, he returned to Dell Rapids. Joan Rasmussen said Fiegen’s not the only young person to decide Dell Rapids beats big city living. “It’s a new yuppie spot,” she said. “People in their twenties are moving to town.” The town is also a good place for women, who own most of the downtown businesses.
In the Rasmussons’ case, Joan plays a more visible role at the opera house, but she said Peter is just as involved. “My husband and I are anywhere at anytime as needed.”
Grand as the opera house restoration has been, it’s just one of the Rasmussons’ projects. They’ve begun renovating the deserted Odd Fellows Hall, once the local orphanage. The three-acre grounds includes an apple orchard. So far, they’ve turned the old laundry building into two condos. But Joan’s vision is to convert the enormous main building into a women’s retreat center for body, mind and spirit. “The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world,” she said.
They paid a dollar to buy the old place. “And how much are we going to put into it?” Peter asked with a wry smile.
Judging from Joan’s thoroughness with the opera house, a lot. And it will add exponentially more to their beautiful historic town.