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Sterling Opera House Cupola Is Here!

by Jodie Mozdzer Gil | Feb 18, 2011 12:28 pm

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Posted to: Derby

The installation of a massive cupola on top of the Sterling Opera House started Friday morning.

City politicians and fine art advocates said it’s symbolic of the behind-the-scenes work that has been happening to move the old performing center toward a new life.

“It’s been such a long time coming,” said Francesca Scarpa, who is co-director of Center Stage theater in Shelton.

“There seems to be a renewed spirit, and a renewed energy toward this,” Scarpa said. “I think it’s possible to get this thing up and running.”

The Cupola

The installation shut down Elizabeth Street for several Friday, while crews from Campbellsville Industries out of Kentucky secured and then lifted the two-piece cupola with a crane to the top of the building.

As of 1 p.m., the workers were still doing their thing, figuring out how best to get the thing to the top of the structure.

The cupola consists of a base structure and a copper dome topper. The project required structural tests and reinforcements be done to the Opera House building first to ensure the building was strong enough to hold the new cupola. That foundation work cost about $76,000, according to the city’s economic development director Sheila O’Malley.

The cupola itself cost $83,000, O’Malley said.

The funds for the project came from a combination of federal and state grants, and matching funds from the city, the Valley Community Foundation, the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation and the Katharine Matthies Foundation, according to O’Malley.

The cupola was built and installed by the same company that built and installed a similar, smaller cupola for the center of the building’s roof.

Derby Mayor Anthony Staffieri said the cupola will help draw attention to the opera house, and the efforts underway there.

The Restoration Project

The Sterling Opera House theater opened in 1889 and was active until 1945, according to a press release from the City of Derby. The building once also housed the City Hall and the police station, but has been vacant since the late 1960s.

It was slated for demolition in the 1970s, but was saved by the efforts of the late Vivian Kellems, a Connecticut industrialist and patron of the arts, the press release said.

The opera house was named for the Sterling Piano Factory, which was once Derby’s largest manufacturing employer and donated two pianos to the theater.

PHOTO: Jodie MozdzerIn the early 1980s, a group formed to try to restore the building to its historic splendor, and put it back to use in the arts.

For the past several years, state and federal grants have trickled in, allowing the city to fix up the exterior of the building.

The next step is the interior, O’Malley said. The city will determine the interior design and come up with plans before going back to the state to try to get more money, O’Malley said.

Officials hope to eventually get the theater active with shows, concerts and speaking engagements again. There’s even talk of eventually having educational programs in the space, and moving toward a regional arts magnet school.

In the meantime, the city is busy marketing the place as a supernatural tourist spot. The show “Ghost Hunters” is scheduled to tape an episode inside Sterling later this month.

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