A $20,000 grant from the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation will help the City of Derby in its decades-long effort to restore the Sterling Opera House, officials said Thursday during a presentation at City Hall.
The money will be used to complete an application to the state’s Historic Preservation Tax Credit program, which, if approved, would help lower the costs of renovating the building.
What precisely those costs would amount to — and how the work would be funded — is still a bit of a guessing game, but Mayor Anita Dugatto, a longtime advocate for renovating the building, said Thursday that “any step forward is good, no matter how small.”
The Sterling, Briefly
City officials have for years been working steadily to breathe new life into the 125-year-old structure, which once welcomed acts ranging from comic legend Red Skelton to Enrico Caruso, a famous tenor whose recording of “Vesti La Giubba” from the opera “Il Pagliacci” was the first ever million-selling record.
It was a performing venue until 1945 and was then used as City Hall and a police station until 1965.
Exterior renovations to the building spanned the administrations of former mayors Marc Garofalo and Anthony Staffieri, and while the building looks great from the outside, its interior is still in disrepair.
Click here to read more about the history of the building at the Electronic Valley.
Dugatto was joined Thursday morning in City Hall’s Aldermanic Chambers by Helen Higgins, executive director of the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation, who presented a giant check to the mayor, as well as Brad Schide, a circuit rider from the group.
Also present were State Rep. Linda Gentile and State Sen. Joseph Crisco.
Schide said Thursday that the application for the tax credits will go to the State Historic Preservation Office for review within about a month, after which he estimated state officials would review the documents for about another eight weeks.
“In roughly three months we should have a rough idea of where the state is,” he said.
City officials unveiled conceptual plans for the renovations more than three years ago, with costs estimated at between $3 million and $4 million.
Under those plans the opera house would become a multi-use venue, available for everything from performances to weddings to high school graduations.
But the cost estimate — $3 million to $4 million — is obviously a pretty wide range.
Schide said Thursday that the grant will help pay for work to get a more precise number.
Example: building codes have changed — vastly — since the Sterling was last in public use.
That’s just one challenge, Schide said.
“We’re looking at building codes, we’re looking at historic fabric and rehab, what windows to use, all those details,” he said of the renovation plans. “The first plan was just the concept. Now we’re getting down to what’s really there. We don’t have a handle on what that cost is going to be yet.”
Shortly after the renovation plans were made public in 2011, the Valley Community Foundation opened a fund for the renovation project. “Save Our Sterling,” a grassroots Derby group, donated $7,000 to the cause.
The VCF also gave $15,000 to the city for the renovation project.
Early last year U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro secured a $150,000 grant to go toward the restoration.
The public is also welcomed to donate to the Sterling fund at VCF.
Dugatto, a dentist whose office is a stone’s throw away from the opera house on Elizabeth Street and a former member of the Save Our Sterling group, said that “the Sterling’s always been a priority for me.”
She said that once the city has a firm handle on how much the interior renovation would cost, they’d look for more funding sources.
One thing the mayor made clear — the city itself won’t just be plunking down millions of dollars for the work.
Gentile and Crisco said the $20,000 grant Thursday is an encouraging step in the process.
“Connecticut is loaded with all sorts of historic treasures and we’re very happy and very pleased and very proud to have one right here in our little city of Derby,” Gentile said. “This money will go a long way to help restore that beauty.”
“It’s so important that we preserve our heritage and the traditions that exist in this area, in particular the arts,” Crisco said. “We can’t do enough as far as I’m concerned in regards to enhancing the arts.”
After the presentation at City Hall, Markanthony Izzo, a member of Save Our Sterling and the keeper of the keys to the building, grabbed a flashlight and led a brief walkthrough of the building with Dugatto.
A slideshow of photos from the tour is below.