The Mabel Tainter Memorial Theaterby Erica Hanson
Theater patrons walking into the opulent marble foyer of the Mabel Tainter Memorial Theater for the first theatrical performance on September 17, 1890, marveled at the hundreds of electric lights. They were united in praise for the chandeliers, the intricate details of the Moorish décor inside the auditorium, the oak, walnut and mahogany woodwork, and the Tiffany-style stained glass windows. They were there to see the Wilbur Opera Company present the operetta Ermine.
If those theater patrons were to walk into the Mabel Tainter Memorial Theater today, they would see those same lights, still fitted for both electricity and gas. They could again marvel at the same exquisite details, the glowing stained glass, and the brilliant colors of the draperies, stenciled patterns, and intricate brass grilles—all the components that made it a “veritable bower of beauty” in 1890. Performances continue to be produced, and while Ermine is no longer amusing audiences today, 21st century theater patrons continue to listen to a variety of shows, including concerts, opera, drama, comedy, and other entertainment.
|From the corner of Main Street and Second Street, the Mabel Tainter Memorial Theater looks the same today as it did in 1890. The only changes visible are now the road is paved and there are no longer awnings on the windows. [Photograph: Mabel Tainter Memorial Theater]|
|Mabel Tainter. Mabel was the daughter of Andrew and Bertha Tainter. She died at the age of nineteen. [Photograph: Mabel Tainter Memorial Theater]|
The Mabel Tainter Memorial Theater, now functioning as the Mabel Tainter Center for the Arts, is one of the few remaining examples of American 19th century architecture and interior design. Gary Schuster, Executive Director of the Tainter, noted that, “A lot of people have commented on how we have updated the facility without destroying the integrity of the 1890 building.” As a result, the building is what one visitor described as a “gem of history.”
In the late 19th century, Menomonie, Wisconsin was a wealthy town of 4,000 residents. Built on the Red Cedar River, it was a booming logging community. Town history tells that the Knapp, Stout & Co. was the largest white pine lumber company in the world at that time. One of the company’s partners, Andrew Tainter, was a respected and powerful man and an active member of the Unitarian Society—a fortunate man by any standard. In 1886, however, Andrew and his wife, Bertha, suffered the worst blow a parent can have. Neither their money nor their social standing was able to prevent the death of their daughter, Mabel, at the age of 19, apparently of a ruptured appendix.
|At the back of the auditorium, visitors today can see the original lights and stained glass. The ceiling and wall designs have been restored by hand. The original wood and metal parts of the seats were retained when they were refurbished and widened to accommodate the comfort of 21st century audiences. [Photograph: Mabel Tainter Memorial Theater]|
The idea of building a memorial to Mabel came not from the family or the long-term community residents. Instead the idea originated with a man who moved to Menomonie after Mabel’s death. The Reverend Henry Doty Maxson was a close friend of the Reverend Jenkin Lloyd Jones, Frank Lloyd Wright’s uncle. Both Jones and Maxson, as Unitarian ministers, had similar ideas about how church buildings should evoke the ideals of unity. Because there was no specially-built Unitarian Church in town, Maxson convinced Andrew and Bertha Tainter that a structure reflecting the principles of the Unitarian faith would encourage the moral, religious, social and philanthropic tenets of the community. From this developed the idea of a building that would serve not only as a memorial to a beloved daughter, but would also serve the Unitarian congregation as a church, the community as a theater and library. Two days after the Mabel Tainter Memorial Theater opened on July 3, 1890, it hosted the Wisconsin Conference of Unitarians.
The Mabel Tainter Memorial Theater still stands today, serving the Unitarian congregation and the community, and functioning as a theater and center for the arts. Designed by the Minneapolis architectural firm of Leroy S. Buffington, who had also designed the First Unitarian church in Minneapolis, Minnesota, it is an example of the Richardsonian Romanesque style of the period. This style is named after Henry Hobson Richardson, whose buildings included the Chicago Auditorium and Trinity Church in Boston.
Tainter spent lavishly on erecting the building, not only on the outside which was constructed of local sandstone, but also on the interior. The Menomonie Times in its July 3, 1890 edition described the inside of the Mabel Tainter Memorial Theater as “very elaborate. No expense has been spared to make all the details perfect.” The newspaper went on to call the auditorium “a marvel of beauty.”
The total cost of the building is recorded as $95,937.73. Included in this amount are all the materials and labor from the summer of 1889 through December, 1890. The handwritten list of expenses, compiled by Andrew Tainter himself, still exists in the building’s archives. The list details the costs of the materials, the work, and the workers who created not only the exterior, but also the interior, including the onyx marble fireplaces, chandeliers, theatrical backdrops, draperies, and hand-stenciled walls and ceilings in the popular Moorish motif.
Stained glass windows, made by the Minneapolis firm of Brown and Haywood, are excellent examples of 19th century glasswork. The firm’s stained glass designer at the time was Tiffany-trained William A. Hazel, an African-American designer and architect who had worked on the windows of Boston’s Trinity Church during his apprenticeship.
|The rare Steere and Turner pipe organ was installed in 1890, and has been maintained throughout the decades. [Photograph: Mabel Tainter Memorial Theater]|
The pipe organ, manufactured by the Massachusetts firm of Steere and Turner, cost $4,160, and was installed on August 18, 1890. This organ, the second theater organ to be installed in an American theater, also served as the church organ for the Unitarian services. The fully functioning organ has 1,597 pipes, ranging from 2 inches to 16 feet, and has 28 stops. Originally water-powered, the organ was later converted to use electricity.
When built, electricity was new enough to be considered unreliable, so the building was constructed to use both gas and electric power. A Minneapolis electrician named Vernon Bell received $419 for the wiring and installation of the 600 electric lights in the building. The Knapp, Stout & Co. had constructed its own power plant to generate the town’s first electricity only six years before work began on the Mable Tainter Memorial Theater. Direct lines from the power plant led into the building. On July 3, 1890, the Menomonie Times enthused about the magnificence of the chandeliers and wall sconces. The newspaper assured its readers, however, that the fixtures were equipped for both gas and electricity, “in the event of the wires becoming deranged.” The building contains these original fixtures, many of which are still able to operate with either gas or electricity.
The auditorium has served as a place for performances ranging from opera, drama, vaudeville, concerts, and a variety of entertainers and musicians. Between 1890 and 1939, more than 90 acting companies provided almost 300 productions.
There was a pause from 1939 to 1959, when the auditorium was silent, although the rest of the building continued to serve as the Unitarian Church, civic offices, and the town’s library. As the city discussed what to do with the building during the 1950s, the community began to rally round its beloved Mabel Tainter Memorial Theater. Donations for the auditorium’s restoration started to come in, forming the basis of the Menomonie Preservation Association.
|The first performance of the Menomonie Theater Guild was in 1959. The auditorium had just received the first of its main restorations. [Photograph: Mabel Tainter Memorial Theater]|
Around the same time, a local theater group, the Menomonie Theater Guild, was formed. As a result of these two civic movements, the Memorial received the first of its major restorations. Since the first Menomonie Theater Guild performance in 1959, the auditorium has been in use continuously. Because of the efforts of the Association and the Guild, the Mabel Tainter Memorial Theater became one of the few theaters in America to survive to the 21st century with its 19th century glory completely preserved. By the 1970s, it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Mabel Tainter Memorial Theater is a member of the League of Historic American Theaters.
The latest renovation, sponsored by the community-wide BRAVO! Campaign, has enabled the building to become fully accessible with a public elevator, new wiring, sprinkler system, and other safety features. Because the marble floors were meticulously dismantled, strengthened, and restored, the wiring and various code requirements were able to be installed within the floors, eliminating the unsightly modernizations often required for safety reasons in many other older buildings.
The Mabel Tainter Memorial Theater not only provides a venue for the performing arts, but also uses many of the other beautifully restored rooms for art exhibitions and other events. The building, including the auditorium itself, can be rented for weddings, meetings, church events, receptions, and fundraisers. The Mabel Tainter Memorial Theater is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., with tours available. For information, tickets for upcoming performances, or to inquire about rentals, visit the web site at www.mabeltainter.com.
Erica Hanson is a writer who has the good fortune to live only 20 miles from the Mabel Tainter Memorial Theater. She is presently working on a book about the Memorial. Visit her blog at http://writingisconversation.blogspot.com
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