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History: The City Hall & Historic Opera House
Sunlight dances on its silver peak; raindrops and snowflakes leave their glistening touches. For over a hundred years the clock tower standing proudly at the top of the Independence City Hall has kept its faithful vigil. But the tower and the building are more than just a structure from the past. Work began in 1902 because the cities people were in great need of a new gathering place. The old wooden village hall no longer met the needs of the city people. At this time there was no electricity to the village and no automobile had ever passed through the dusty streets. The village people were very anxious to foresee the community project which was projected to show great prosperity and prominence with began the vision of the new City Hall. Since 1904, when the unique building was completed, it has been a proud landmark for the small City of Independence. The Wisconsin State Historical Society has called it "The most visibly outstanding government building in Trempealeau County." The Opera House has also been published in "Encore! The Renaissance of Wisconsin Opera Houses" by Brian Leahy Doyle.
The City Hall was designed by the Winona, Minnesota, firm of C. G. Maybury and Sons Architects, who gave the City board a bid of $11,000. Approximately $272,670 in today's dollars. Once the firm had won the bid they were told to "commence work immediately." The laying of the corner stone occurred on October 31, 1902 while school children sang at the ceremony. Then devastation struck...
Almost exactly one year after the corner stone had been placed, on October 3, 1903 a devastating tornado come through the little town of Independence. The storm not only killed two people and left nine injured, but it had also damaged or destroyed at least half of the buildings in the City. This also included the new City Hall and Opera house which was well on its way to completion. The storm had ripped the roof off the building and dropped it back down again only to ruin the work on the walls of the second floor leaving only the front standing, along with the clock tower and chimney. The damage that had been done throughout the city estimated at $75,000 or $1,842,000 in today's dollars. The City Hall had gotten a temporary roof added to the ruins to protect the work that had been completed and what was still in good condition. The work on the building did not commence until July 27, 1904. At the end of August the building was in usable shape where administration was now being conducted within the City Hall and there were even events held in the theater. There was still much work to be finished in the space from the plaster walls to the heating system.
The City Hall was eventually completed and was the gem that the City had hoped it would be. There were performances that had taken place from 1904 to the 1960's. The Opera House had averaged about twelve events annually through the first ten years of completion. In later years the Opera House was fitted with projection equipment and became a popular space for watching movies. The movies had been shown alongside the City orchestra on a weekly basis. The Opera house functioned primarily as a movie theater from the 1920's to the 1960's. The Independence American Legion Post sponsored the latest Hollywood movies three times a week on a regular basis. Then it seems the Opera House had been forgotten...
While city government activities have continued for this past century on the first floor, in the dark shadows and corners of the old Opera House in the hall's second story; ghosts from performances and events past had lingered lonely and lost on the dusty stage and empty auditorium for nearly 30 years. Peeling paint and ragged fabric had clung to the walls and windows.
Finally in 1997, the City and the Friends of City Hall with pride and determination made a commitment to restore this historical gem and coax it back to its once genteel days.
Since then the Friends of City Hall, a group of dedicated volunteers, have raised tens of thousands of dollars and donated many hours to help restore the historic landmark. New stage curtains and brocade-covered seats add a touch of elegance and once again the golden maple floors shine. Over 14,000 people have now attended functions at the Opera House since its reopening in August of 1999. Activities have included company Christmas parties, plays, class reunions, concerts, junior proms, weddings and anniversaries. Now with the completion of the building addition in 2002, an elevator opens this second floor venue for everyone's enjoyment.