A blast from the past | BrainerdDispatch.com | Brainerd, Minnesota

A blast from the past

Woman embraces renovation project at Butler’s in Aitkin

Posted: November 11, 2011 - 3:59pm
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Brainerd Dispatch/ Steve Kohls
If plans go forward as proposed, Butler’s in Aitkin will have a new owner Nov. 30 and a fresh plan to revitalize the building with retail, restaurants and community events. Hopes are to restore the building to its original Aitkin Opera House look established when the building was constructed in 1902.

Sylvia Allen carved out a career in community revitalization for more than two decades.
She founded her own company Allen Consulting. She led seminars. She engaged communities with events and worked on numerous improvement districts.
Now a project in Aitkin, more than 1,000 miles from her New Jersey front door, is where she wants to make a difference.
“Here is an opportunity to test everything I have ever done and do it for me and this little town,” Allen said in a phone interview. “Hopefully, I can make a difference in this community,” she said.
The project is the renovation of the landmark Butler’s building in Aitkin, which has stood as a solid mainstay of the city’s main street for more than 100 years.
In its infancy, the building was a bustling center of community culture and commerce.
“A person could arrive in town by train or steamboat and could quite literally walk in the front door of the Hodgeden-MacDonald building and buy feed and hardware needed to start up their homestead, get needed food and clothing, a wagon and team to haul everything, a shave, a bath, take in a vaudeville performance at the opera house and get a bank loan to pay for everything — all without ever having to leave the building! Truly cosmopolitan,” states the Butler’s website, which includes an extensive history of the storied building.
Allen, who made a career in public relations/marketing before devoting the last two decades to community revitalization efforts, has turned her attention to restoring the opera house to its former glory.
For the last year-and-a-half, Allen said the Butler’s has been basically empty. When Allen read the building may be turned into housing, she was inspired to act. Allen said she talked to Chuck Butler this past summer during an auction at Butler’s and negotiations began.
She expects to take ownership of the building on Nov. 30. She wants to start with the first floor and begin a phased three-year plan to renovate the building. To that end, Allen said she created a nonprofit Butler Project LLC. Susan Ackerman was named project manager. Allen said she’d like to attract investors/sponsors to the renovation effort, which would provide a tax-deduction incentive. The investors could be recognized as “stars” at the opera house. A $25,000 investor would gain the tax deduction, recognition and be able to use the event center once for free.
“The building is in wonderful shape,” Allen said, noting the original oak was never painted and the building sports a tongue-and-groove walnut ceiling with windows that are still intact. The basement, where the public baths and barber once were, has fieldstone exterior walls and brick dividing walls.
But she expects the building restoration may cost $1 million.
Allen wants to restore a combination of retail, coffee shop and antiques to the main floor. In the future, she hopes to have a restaurant and microbrewery in the basement. The former opera house could be the setting for community events, arts, wedding receptions and retirement parties.
“We already have people asking us to do events,” Allen said.
Allen’s connection to Aitkin goes back many years. She said her grandmother visited friends on Big Pine Lake and Aitkin in 1912. Her grandmother was so enthused about the area, her great-grandfather bought 100 acres there and built a home. The family spent time there every summer and Allen still lives in the home. She said going to Aitkin always meant a trip to Butler’s.
“You didn’t even know what you needed but you had to go to Butler’s,” she said.
Allen has lived on the East Coast since 1965 and in New Jersey since 1969. But the Minnesota native always returned to the lake near Aitkin. Now she wants to work cooperatively with other retailers on Aitkin’s Minnesota Avenue to promote the city.
“It’s a darling little town,” she said. “Let’s capitalize on that.”
Allen, who also supports a school for more than 1,000 orphans in Uganda with a nonprofit Sylvia’s Children, was traveling to Ireland for a seminar this week.
Butler’s expects to be home to the arts and craft show for the annual Fish House Parade the Friday after Thanksgiving. With an admittedly ambitious schedule, Allen said she wants to have the first floor of the new Butler’s open by May 15.
Allen is applying for grants and is seeking tenants for the building. Allen said she brings contacts she’s made over the years and all her experience to the Butler Project. She’s provided seminars for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. A book author, Allen previously worked in communications positions with AT&T and McGraw-Hill. She was adjunct professor of marketing for New York University and was names one of New Jersey’s Best 50 Women in Business by NJBIZ Magazine.
“I always say I jump in the pool and pray there’s water,” Allen said. “Most of my life it’s worked.”
RENEE RICHARDSON may be reached at renee.richardson@brainerddispatch.com or 855-5852.

A legacy Samuel Hodgeden’s name still lingers on the brick exterior at Butler’s in Aitkin along with his business partner James MacDonald. At the turn of the century, Hodgeden traveled to Chicago and New York to get ideas for the Aitkin Opera House. Built in 1902, the building was doubled in an expansion a year later. Bricks were made from Mississippi River mud in Aitkin. Wood for the opera house’s ornate oak stage came from trees near Aitkin with oak panels milled in Little Falls. Judy Garland appeared on the Aitkin Opera House’s stage as a child with the Gumm Sisters vaudeville act from Grand Rapids. Aitkin native Warren William, who later appeared on Broadway and in numerous films starring opposite Claudette Colbert, Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck, began his early career on the stage in Aitkin. William starred in “Cleopatra” in 1934, “The Wolf Man” in 1941 and he was the first actor to portray Perry Mason, according to the Internet Movie Database. The opera house was home to the National Tea food market until the mid-1960s. Then in 1967, Butler’s department store moved from the Moveum Theatre building into the opera house, where it remained for decades until recent years when its antique collections were auctioned and the former department store sat empty.