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The Rise of Wilson Czech Opera House

By Pattern Energy Stories
December 20th, 2021

 

Wilson Kansas: The World’s Largest Czech Egg next to the Czech Opera House.

 

“I feel extremely positive,” Allison told me, obviously proud. “We are determined that we are going to have a wonderful open air theater. It's been a long journey with lots of change. Right now our board is dynamic and forward looking, the community supports us, and I’m excited to be moving forward.”

The town of Wilson, Kansas, started as a stagecoach stop in the 1860s and then later, a rail stop on the Kansas Pacific Railway.

Starting in 1874, Czech immigrants began moving to Wilson to work on the railroads. So many Czech immigrants came that Wilson became known as a center of Czech culture in America and in 1901 the Czech Opera House was built.

Recently I had the opportunity to talk to Allison Ford, president of the board of the Wilson Czech Opera House, which is a nonprofit dedicated to restoring the building and making it into something better than it was before. 

 

The Opera House comes to life.

 

The Fire

In 2009, a fire broke out in Wilson that spread to the Opera House, a building that had been a center of the community and place of pride since it was built.

The roof was destroyed, brick walls were scorched, and doorways severely damaged.

After the fire, there was a lot of debate in the community as to what to do next.

“Some people wanted to tear it down,” said Allison. “Others wanted to rebuild it exactly as it was, and for a long time its future was up in the air.”

 


Tragedy to Opportunity 

As it happens, Allison used to run a theater company she founded, and it served children from all around the area.

“Our first play had 65 kids in it!” she said proudly, and told me she had been inspired to start it after visiting Salina, Kansas with her daughters when they were around 10.

The theater company was a success, but it, like everything else the Opera House served, was stopped due to the fire. 

 

The Fire, 2009.



“We looked at everything,” Allison said. “The costs to rebuild exactly the same were huge, and demolition would be equally expensive.”

Allison had been impressed on trips to Europe, where she experienced open air theaters, and thought the same could work for the Opera House.

“We had some pushback at first,” Allison said, “but now things have changed somewhat. We have a younger, more dynamic board that wants to see the open air theater realized.”

Proudly, Allison said the engineer in charge of their project has people calling him from other cities and towns saying, “We have a building, we want an open air theater,” she said. 

 

Before the basement was filled in (you can see scorch marks on the brick).

 


Where they are

On the Czech Opera House website, it says they’ve raised more than $200,000 to date, but Allison said they still have a ways to go. 

“We have been extremely grateful for a grant we received from the Dane G. Hanson Foundation, which allowed us to do some major work,” Allison said as she ticked off a list of accomplishments the grant made possible, one of which was filling in the basement.

“We’re starting a campaign for pavers, and the inside is going to be beautiful,” she said.

Pattern Energy has committed $4,000 to the project, and there has been support from the greater community.

Allison said the local Eagle Lodge is next door, which makes their facilities available after events and allows for different types of events to be held there. 

After basement fill. 


Where they’re going

“I feel extremely positive,” Allison told me, obviously proud. “We are determined that we are going to have a wonderful open air theater. It's been a long journey with lots of change. Right now our board is dynamic and forward looking, the community supports us, and I’m excited to be moving forward.”

Finally, there are the acoustics.

“The acoustics are absolutely amazing. People can’t believe how beautiful music sounds inside. We have a real treasure here in Wilson.” 

Rendering of Wilson Czech Opera House once complete.