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Historic Butler Building with opera house was once the place to go in Aitkin: Today serves as office space and more

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Sylvia Allen stands in the opera house on the upper floor of the Butler Building in Aitkin. Allen restored a portion of the building, including the opera house. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch
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AITKIN -- It is a piece of history that’s been on Minnesota Avenue North in Aitkin since 1903.

Aitkin’s Opera House, also known as the Butler Building, at one time was bustling at the seams as the building provided all services people needed under one roof -- from food to clothing to buying feed and hardware needed for the settlers’ homesteads. When it came time to unwind, people could be entertained on the upper level, which housed the Opera House, a place Judy Garland from “The Wizard of Oz” is known to have performed.

Fast forward to the 21st century, and the building has sustained a lot of wear and tear, has been renovated and today has a different purpose.

Sylvia Allen, president of TBP Management in Aitkin, purchased the 22,164-square-foot Butler Building in November of 2011 with a purpose of remodeling it back to its original style to contribute to the economic vitality of downtown Aitkin. Remodeling -- which was not done on the entire building -- was completed in October of 2012.

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Allen loves history and when she saw the property was up for sale, she decided to purchase it and bring it back to life. Allen considers Aitkin her home and she didn’t want to see the historic building be destroyed or remodeled into something less desirable.

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The exterior of the Butler Building in Aitkin, includes remnants of its storied past in a sign for general merchandise, the building is home to the historic Aitkin Opera House, where Judy Garland performed as a child. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

Allen’s great-grandfather in 1914 bought a 100-acre property on Big Pine Lake in Aitkin County and she has vacationed there all of her life, when her grandparents lived there. Today she owns a seasonal cabin in Aitkin and her permanent home is in New Jersey, where she also runs her public relations business, Allen Consulting Inc.

As a businesswoman, Allen thought it would be great to have people use the Butler Building to conduct their business in a beautiful building. She hired contractors to remodel the main level of the building into office spaces for residents, business owners or nonprofit organizations to utilize. Currently renting space are Minnesota Mobility Services, Aitkin Area Chamber of Commerce and Miracle Ear -- with additional space available, including shared office space. A shared office space was created to give customers 24/7 key entry access, so they could come and go as they pleased. This space may be of interest to freelancers, real estate or insurance agents, lawyers or to people who come to the area to vacation and need a quiet place to work for an hour or more, Allen said.

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The historic Butler Building in Aitkin sits on the 300 block of Minnesota Avenue North. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

The shared office space has room for about 10 people and includes high-speed broadband, computers and monitors, a meeting space, video screen with webinar capability and printers. The rates are flexible and depend on need and availability; ranging from hourly to daily, monthly or annually. Rates are typically $10 per hour and must be prepaid.

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Businesses have come and gone in the building, including The Beanery Cafe and Roastery and Curio North shop. Allen said she would like to see more businesses utilize the space. She said she would like to see retail, an art gallery or coffee shop move into the Butler Building.

The opera house is on the upper level of the building and also was restored. This event space is available for organizers to rent, offering a stage to host performances and social events such as weddings, graduations, anniversaries or recitals. People may hire catering companies to bring in food and beverages for events, as currently there is no kitchen in the building. The space can seat up to 200 people.

The Lakes Area Music Festival has hosted concerts in the space, as well as other music organizations.

“The opera house is a phenomenal place for people to rent,” Allen said. “It is so beautiful and the acoustics are fantastic.”

The lower level is currently used for storage and would need to be renovated. Allen said the space would be a great place to open a restaurant as there is a 30-foot rock foundation acting as a dramatic backdrop for the interior design.

Allen said the Aitkin Economic Development Authority helped and supported her in updating the Butler Building to help the Aitkin economy. However, as much as she loves the history and the building, she put the building up for sale in mid-July with Close-Converse Commercial Real Estate in Brainerd.

“It breaks my heart,” Allen said to sell the property. “I love this building.”

Allen said she can’t afford to keep the building, as her bills are just too high. She said her husband has been in a wheelchair for three years, and she pays $7,000 a month for a permanent, live-in health aid and her cash flow deficit in the Butler Building is $6,000 a month. She said she did it for three years, but now she has to stop.

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Allen said the Butler Building will still need to have renovations done, but it would make a great space for a business in Aitkin.

What the tenants have to say

“This is a perfect space for us,” said Taylor Erickson, executive director of the Aitkin chamber, of the historic Butler Building. “It’s visible from downtown Aitkin, it has good parking and that is not always easy to come by. There is lots of space in the basement and that is big because we have events every month and need to store materials.

“Plus, it’s just nice to be in a historic place. This building has a lot of history. This building was a hub of commerce in Aitkin’s earliest interactions so that is cool for the chamber to be a part of.”

The chamber uses the opera house for events, as well.

Erickson said the chamber gets a lot of walk-in traffic, moreso as people want to see the historic building. She said people are impressed with the building.

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Mark Bliss, owner of sales and in-home assessments at Minnesota Mobility Systems Inc., decided to rent space in the Butler Building in Aitkin four years ago. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

Mark Bliss is the owner of sales and in-home assessments at Minnesota Mobility Systems Inc. He said they decided to rent the space at the Butler Building four years ago as it is a central location in Minnesota to do business, and they do business all over the state.

“This is a wonderful building, historic building,” Bliss said. “Being in Aitkin there are a lot of things happening, bringing people in. The out of town people flock into town at this time of year (summer).”

Minnesota Mobility Systems provides in home sales and service for mobility items to keep people independent in their home for as long as possible. Bliss said they sell new and used items, including mobility scooters and power wheelchairs, stair lift elevators, vehicle lifts, ramps, walkers with seats and brakes, lift chairs and walk-in tubs.

Bliss said their customers can come to the store or they can go to them.

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The letter "B" sits inside the Butler Building in Aitkin, waiting for workers to place it back on the exterior of the building. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

History of the Butler Building

“Aitkin’s Opera House, also known as the Butler Building, was built in 1903 and was the cultural center of the community,” the Butler Building’s history website. “Aitkin sprang from the wilderness in 1871, materializing where the Mississippi River and the railroad met. The settlement was a wild frontier lumber town and riverboat transportation center that swarmed with lumberjacks each summer as the ‘boys’ came to town to spend their paychecks in the 16 saloons and various ‘bawdy houses’ in the community.“

“In 1902, Samuel Hodgeden sought to enhance the cultural offerings of the community by constructing a new building that would contain an opera house. He traveled to Chicago and New York to visit the best opera houses in those cities to formulate plans for his own design a two-story structure. A year later, Hodgeden expanded the original structure to double its size. “Unlike the first section, the addition was constructed with bricks made in Aitkin from Mississippi mud and fired locally.”

In the early 1900s, Aitkin’s opera house was home to a general merchandise store, bank, barber shop, hardware store, seed and feed warehouse, buggy and wagon shop, bath house, and the opera house.

“A person could arrive in town by train or steamboat and could quite literally walk in the front door of the Hodgeden-MacDonald building and buy feed and hardware needed to start up their homestead, get needed food and clothing, a wagon and team to haul everything, a shave, a bath, take in a vaudeville performance at the opera house and get a bank loan to pay for everything -- all without leaving the building,” according to the building’s history.

A young Judy Garland on the Opera House stage, Vaudeville acts, lantern-slide presentations, home theater productions, high school plays, lectures and ballroom dancing were all part of the entertainment in the Aitkin Opera House, on the building’s second floor. The folding chairs could be readily removed to make space for ballroom dancing.

“The walls were covered to window sill height with oak paneling that Hodgeden had manufactured from oak cut near Aitkin,” the website stated. “The panels were milled in Little Falls, numbered as to placement and shipped back to Aitkin for installation. The new opera house sported a ticket window, men’s and ladies’ lounges and dressing rooms. The expansive stage was trimmed with oak carved in ornate floral scrollwork and was accented with Roman-style pillars.”

The days of the opera house’s use came to an end before World War II and later, for a few years, it became a furniture store before serving as the local American Legion’s first home.

The Aitkin Opera House stage had notable performers, including the youngest of a vaudeville trio from Grand Rapids called the Gumm Sisters, including 3-year-old Francis Gumm who would mature and become Hollywood’s Judy Garland. The Gumm Sisters performed around Minnesota and in surrounding states in the mid-1920s.

According to the Butler Building history, Garland returned to Aitkin again shortly after her most memorable role in 1939’s “The Wizard of Oz,” during a visit to Grand Rapids, where Garland was born.

“She made a point to visit the former place of employment of a fellow MGM star and former performer at the Aitkin Opera House -- Warren Krech,” whose father owned the Aitkin Age newspaper. The original Perry Mason, Krech, who had changed his last name to William, starred in many roles, including Marc Anthony in Cecil B. DeMill’s epic “Cleopatra.”

Related Topics: AITKIN
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