Plaster Finishes

The original interior surface of the opera house was gypsum plaster decorated with distemper.  Whiles the opera house surfaces have been obliterated or covered over in most locations, the original plaster is still evident in the third floor, former balcony area.  The salmon colored plaster visible below layers of flaking paint at the north wall is original, and in the third floor restroom, behind the later plaster skim coat that is falling from the walls, a portion of a painted frieze can be seen at the top of the wall.  The frieze is a delicate yellow stenciled onto the salmon background, with floral and geometrical motifs.

Distemper frieze on original opera house plaster wall, 3rd floor.

At the time the opera hall was built, gypsum plaster was just coming into widespread use in the plastering trade.  Interior plastering in the United States until the turn of the nineteenth century was generally carried out with lime plaster.  Gypsum plaster sets quickly and allows for the application of additional plaster coats and finishing with paint within a short time frame.  Gypsum plaster does not, however, have the same durability and water resistance as a true lime plaster.  The contemporary accounts of the Ferris Grand finishing work mention that the “adamant” was employed; adamant was a trade name at the time for the new gypsum plaster.

In 1914 the state fire marshal ordered the Ferris Grand Opera House closed for reason of a number of safety concerns, including the need to replaster the ceiling.  Plaster serves to protect the wood structure behind the finish from fire, it is an incombustible material, and so it would have been an important part of fire safety in a large auditorium building like the Ferris Grand.  It is remarkable that the plaster ceiling, only 15 years old at the time, would have been in need of replacement.  The poor condition of the ceiling must have been due to improper installation at the time of construction possibly resulting from rushed work, frost damage, or maybe from the plasterers’ unfamiliarity with a new type of material.

Clues in the Flooring

There are no extant architectural drawings of the Ferris Grand Block, or its opera house design.  Its original layout is a mystery.  Presumably, the auditorium took up the entire width, of the building, given the clear span roof framing, whereas the existing Lodge room does not.  According to contemporary descriptions, the former layout included four separate office spaces at the front of the building overlooking the street that were occupied initially by Drs. Alex & Will Brown.  The existing stairway from street level provided access to the auditorium, but did it also serve the front offices?  A curious change in floor level suggests maybe not.

At the storage area below the third-floor stairway, accessed from the Masonic anterooms, the original flooring is visible, and it is four inches below the current floor level of the rest of the second floor.  It does not align with the floor level reached by the main stair from street level.  It is possible instead that the front offices were served by the stairwell between the Ferris Grand building and the Mackay building, which now only serves the Mackay building.  The existing stair to the third floor probably did not exist, but rather the balcony level was served by multiple stairways within the auditorium space itself. 

During the 1917 remodeling, the Masons built new partitions on top of existing maple finished flooring, as evidenced at the store room adjacent to the kitchen, which implies the second floor at the level of the original main floor of the opera house.  However, original newspaper accounts describe a “raised floor” for the fixed seats of the auditorium, which implies a sloping floor, which may or may not have extended throughout the space.

The opera hall balcony was probably originally a sloping balcony, and the existing third floor was probably entirely new built in 1917.  Typical of frugal remodelers of every period, the Masons reused materials from the opera house, at least in locations in the building where it would not detract from the grand design of the new Lodge.  In the third floor “locker room,” the flooring is salvaged flooring from the old balcony: there are row numbers on the fir boards in scattered locations. 

Opera House seating numbers on the reused flooring on third floor.

Another Stone Block

In 1898, A.D. Ferris, Frasier Mackay and a Mr. Hanson, entered into a partnership to build a new stone block on Pipestone’s East Olive Street (now Main Street).  They owned adjacent frame buildings and planned to have them moved to other parts of town before the construction of a two-story stone building which would reach across their three lots.  The project got under way when the buildings were moved and the lots cleared in August of that year.

After the first floor was built, Mr. Mackay left the project and finished his part of the building on his own.  Mr. Ferris bought Mr. Hanson out and expanded his vision for the other two-thirds of the building.  Mr. Ferris’ new vision included a grand opera house on the second floor with a partial third floor balcony.  There was to be a stage across the south end and a horseshoe balcony on the north.  In order to fund his civic project, Ferris asked the community to subscribe seats at $5 each.  Ferris also took a silent partner at this time, his daughter Mittie Manuel, and fifteen community members put up $100 each in order to seal the public’s interest and support.

The second floor was laid in November and staging and joists raised for the partial third story.  As the work season was winding down in other cities, stone masons and workmen arrived in Pipestone to push the Ferris Grand Block to the finish.  The stonework was completed by November 17 and Ferris and his investors held a short dedication ceremony in the unfinished building later that month.

The carpentry crew came in in December to work on the interior woodwork.  The heating plant was installed and operational by mid-December and plastering of the walls has begun.  The local newspaper proclaimed the playhouse finished, the text of the article amending that to “practically finished,” on February 17, 1899.

As the finishing touches were being put on the Opera Hall on the second floor, the rental portions of the building were filling up.  One of the two separate retail storefronts on the street level was occupied by the Savings Bank Department Store and Doctors A.H. and W.A. Brown moved into their new office quarters in the second floor, renting the entire suite of four rooms.

Opening day for the Opera Hall, which had been initially planned for January 1, 1899, finally took place on March 8,1899 to a packed house.  A traveling theatrical group was hired and several local youths participated as stage hands.  The community pegged opening night a great success, (although it was allowed the show itself wasn’t that great!)

Read more on the Construction & Opening of the Ferris Grand Block in the booklet “Another Stone Block” available on our online gift shop.  Visit our website at and click on “Gift Shop,” and search under books!

Connecting Spaces

In the spring of 2018, a major step towards the integration of the Ferris Grand Block into PCHS’s mission took place with the opening of a connecting doorway.  The shared wall between the Museum’s Gallery III and the Ferris Grand’s Masonic dining room (second floor) was broken through with the intention of creating a doorway between the two spaces.  Turns out the elevation is a little different, so a stairway was built on the Gallery III side.  Turns out we gained a few insights as to the building structure due to this project.

When the former exterior wall of the Museum- originally Pipestone’s City Hall- was broken through, we ran into a window!  Well, a window opening, no glass.  It had been bricked up when the dining room addition was built against the back wall in the 1930s.  It just hadn’t occurred to us that there were originally several windows spanning that space.  That gave us insight into the original Old City Hall/Museum building.

But the biggest surprise, and it shouldn’t have been, was that the Masonic dining room addition wasn’t built ‘adjoining’ the back of City Hall, it was built ‘on to’ the back wall of City Hall.  Meaning Old City Hall’s formerly exterior wall was merely fitted out with furring strips and paneling attached directly to the wall.

This explains and illustrates how the historic buildings in Historic Downtown Pipestone find themselves in peril when the adjoining building goes down.  Its not just that they are built very close together and disturbing one will disturb another.  It’s that they are literally sharing important structural parts.

Luckily for us, and probably more importantly luckily for both of these buildings, they are now owned by one group, dedicated to seeing them structurally sound.

Former Exterior Wall of Old City Hall from the Masonic Dining Room side. Can see a bricked-up window to the left.
The cut through the wall, looking of the Museum/Old City Hall and into the Masonic Dining room . Can see the furring and lathe and plaster on the left, the Old City Hall side of the wall, and a glimpse of the thin paneling on the other side.

Rehabilitation of the Ferris Grand

In 2015 PCHS partnered with the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota in conducting an Evaluation of Building Conditions, Decorative Finishes & Reuse Alternatives for the Ferris Grand Block, specifically the Masonic Hall portion of the building.  This evaluation has served as a conditions assessment as the rehabilitation and preservation of the building moves forward.

In 2019 PCHS received a grant through the Minnesota Historical Society with funds provided by the State of Minnesota from the Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.  This grant will fund architectural drawings needed to complete the physical work which will occur in the next phase.

The 2015 Evaluation specifically outlined these critical areas of structural stabilization that need to be addressed:

  • Several sections of charred & substandard framing in the basement that were modified during the 1993 remodeling.  Beam supports and connections should be code compliant.
  • One of the original timber roof trusses appears to be suffering deflection at its midspan.
  • Interior & Exterior repointing proceeded by a comprehensive masonry study.  Lime mortar joints need to be raked out and repointed throughout the exterior and where possible on the interior.
  • Additionally, the overall roof is nearing the end of its lifespan and will need to be replaced.

In 2020, PCHS hired LHB Inc. architects to create the construction documents on these specific areas of work.  This project is underway and on track to be completed in the spring of 2021.  PCHS plans to pursue Phase III at that time, which will begin the physical construction work necessary to carry this building into the future.