Laura Dean Bennett
If you’ve been in Marlinton in the last week or so, you may have noticed a flurry of activity and the presence of scaffolding around our beloved Opera House.
Since 1999, Pocahontas County and the town of Marlinton have reveled in what many consider to be the heart of our community – the Pocahontas County Opera House.
She was built in 1910 by J. G. Tilton, publisher of the Marlinton Messenger, when Marlinton was the epicenter of the region’s timber boom, at the dawning of the railroad age here in the mountains.
“The Pocahontas County Opera House isn’t any old building,” Jason Bauserman, chairman of the Historic Landmarks Committee said.
“It’s one of the few buildings in Pocahontas County on the National Historic Register.
“She stands as a reminder of the rich history of the town and the region. It’s the Landmarks Commission’s honor to restore and maintain this building because of its historical significance,” he continued.
“This beautiful 1910 building brought live stage shows to Pocahontas County before electricity, radio and TV.
“We have the railroad to thank for making it possible for us to have this culture here in our remote mountain location and we should never forget that,” Bauserman added.
And, can you imagine? She was actually the second Opera House in Marlinton.
Yes, Marlinton was once such a bustling little city that it needed two opera houses to satisfy the area’s live entertainment needs.
Marlinton’s first opera house was called “The Grand.”
It was the place for vaudeville acts, little plays and moving pictures.
Then Tilton built the present Opera House, a three-story concrete palace, which stood tall and proud, towering above other buildings in town.
She boasted a large stage, ornately patterned pressed-metal panels lining the ceiling, a balustrade of American chestnut standing guard on three sides of the wrap-around balcony.
Daylight pours in through the building’s 32 windows and the acoustics are widely regarded as some of the best for a theater her size.
But, alas, her reign was not to last.
Tilton ran into significant financial difficulty, and the Opera House was sold in 1914.
She was sadly used for many other purposes during the decades that followed – from car sales to lumber storage.
Finally, she was rescued by the Pocahontas County Historic Landmarks Commission in 1991, which painstakingly restored her to her former glory and reopened her in 1999.
The Opera House is the home of a performance series, which brings varied talent and wonderful culture to us every year, and draws an appreciative audience of local residents and visitors alike.
It also serves as a meeting place, a home for festive community events and a venue for weddings and other celebrations.
“The Pocahontas County Landmarks Commission is proud to be responsible for the upkeep on the Opera House and the McGlaughlin Cabin,” Bauserman said.
The commission consists of Tim Wade, Bob Sheets, Liz Gay and Ruthanna Beezely.
One of its most valued members, Ruth Taylor, recently resigned.
The commission has always taken its charge quite seriously.
“The ongoing maintenance issues of these two structures is on every Landmarks Commission agenda,” Bauserman said.
Funding for the upkeep of these important historic structures comes from an annual portion the hotel/motel tax via the county commission and from grants by the West Virginia Department of Culture and History.
The Opera House was in need of a face lift – patching of the mortar parging (that is to say, the concrete covering the exterior walls) and painting – delicate work for which Ronnie and Barbie Pugh, of Bartow, are well-suited.
They have specialized in restoration of older buildings, and professional painting is their bread and butter. Besides, they know the Opera House by heart – they parged and painted her 20 years ago.
“Our priority this year has been exterior maintenance, and I’m so proud of the Pugh’s work,” Bauserman said.
“Naturally, this is a complicated and expensive process, but we are happy to see that it’s finally, almost completed.
“Barbie and Ronnie Pugh originally painted this around 2000.
“They came to me and said, ‘We’d like to work on it and paint it again.’” Bauserman recalled.
“We advertised for bids, but no one bid except the Pughs.”
The Pughs also painted the old Huntersville School a few years ago and, according to Huntersville Historic Traditions, of which Tim Wade is president, they did a wonderful job.
“The painting will be done soon, but the other construction, the canopy along the Discovery Junction side, which is being done in a separate contract by the Pugh’s son, Caleb, may take a bit longer.
“The red guttering will be the last part of this project,” Bauserman added.
Several members of the Opera House board, including Bob Sheets’ wife, Elaine, Wade and others lobbied for the inspired paint colors.
“Yes, I think the colors turned out quite nicely,” Barbie Pugh observed.
“The main building color is Weston Flax and the scale-style siding color is Old Salem Gray.
“The trim color is Davenport Tan.”
“Those concrete walls keep the Opera House cold inside – a benefit in summer – but hard to heat in the winter,” Bauserman observed.
“What we did wasn’t restoration,” Barbie said, “but rather preservation.
“Not a facelift really, as much as a lifestyle lift.
“Just a little nip and tuck.
“You know, like a makeover – so the grand dame can put her best face forward,” she said, smiling.
There’s always something to be done on an old building.
And one on the national historic register?
Oh, yes. Always something to be done to keep it running and keep it up in the manner it was meant to be.
“The building’s two original furnaces needed to be replaced about a year and a half ago at $5,000 a piece,” Bauserman said.
“And a while back, we added a second set of two furnaces, which will probably need to be replaced this year or next,” he added.
“We needed to repair a leak and cover the handicapped ramp and lots of parging was coming loose over on that side.
“We reviewed a bid by Caleb Pugh and hired him to build the canopy,” Bauserman said.
“Then we decided to extend the canopy all along the one-hundred twenty foot side of the building to protect the heat pumps.
“As a design consideration, we matched the Discovery Junction eight by eight posts and black metal connectors on the posts of the stage.
“Allen Sisler at Interstate Lumber generously donated the two by sixes for the framing work and oak sheeting boards.
“Back when lumber was sky high, we did buy some two by fours for underneath the canopy around the lights,” he said.
The Pugh’s relationship with the Opera House goes back to the time that “Ronnie did the interior for Ruth Morgan, and that led to us doing the exterior,” Barbie said.
“When we first painted the Opera House twenty years ago, we were painting over the original whitewash.
“Yes, we have a thing for the Opera House,” she added.
The couple has been married for 36 years and live in Bartow in Barbie’s home place.
They’ve built a successful business, which includes restoring and painting by careful attention to detail and loving their work.
They have become known as the local experts on old, historic projects.
“We learned how to go about these kinds of projects by trial and error,” Barbie admitted.
“We read articles about it and got advice from a cousin of mine in Elkins, Kevin Widney, who owns a historic home.
“We picked the brain of a friend at church who has forty-five years’ experience in working with parging.
“I love seeing things gussied up,” Barbie said.
“When we did the Depot – it was so beautiful, and we were so proud.
“And then it burned.
“It broke our hearts,” she remembered.
The historic buildings which some of us may take for granted are a big part of what keeps us tied to our history and makes our community special.
“At the turn of the 20th century, the railroad arrived in Pocahontas County when vast stands of virgin timber was being shipped to commercial markets,” Brynn Kusic, Opera House manager, said.
“The railroad brought in something valuable too – it opened up isolated communities to all the activity and opportunity that followed the rails.”
With more than a dozen professional performances on its stage each year, the Opera House is Pocahontas County’s premier performing arts center, providing an intimate setting with seating for about 250.
It is a destination on the West Virginia Historic Theatre Trail.
Performances range from bluegrass to jazz, folk, rock and roll and opera, to musical theatre and even international musical guests.
“We should never forget how much having the Opera House here means to us,” Bauserman stated.
“This is the bright, shining gemstone for all the people of the county.
“We hope they continue to come and take advantage of the entertainment and the community gatherings that it provides.”