WINAMAC — Ever since Opera House Floral and Gifts opened in downtown Winamac this summer, Carrie Hoffman said people from the town and region have stopped by the historic building, admiring its charm and rehabilitation after it sat vacant for two decades.
This holiday season, Carrie Hoffman and her husband, Doug Hoffman, owners of the business, have decorated the former Winamac opera house with lights and garland on the outside and trees, Christmas trinkets and a 1955 Santa Claus figurine from Macy's in New York City in the storefront windows. At night, the bright design sticks out to passersby on Main Street.
Inside, the business not only has flowers and home decor gifts for sale, but antique furniture on display, with some for purchase, Carrie Hoffman said. They also have a 125-year-old pipe organ welcoming visitors in the front door and a red sleigh in the middle of the store for the holidays.
The antiques pull the building back to its roots. Built in 1882 as the Vurpillat's Opera House, the three-story structure has an opera house stage on the third floor, while the second floor historically had offices and retail shops on the ground level, Ryan Harrison said.
Harrison, president of the Pulaski County Historical Society, said in the building's 135 years, the first floor has been the home to a bank, butcher shop and pharmacies. When it was originally used as an opera house in the late 19th century, the first floor was a stable for buggies. After sitting vacant since at least 1998, the historical society bought the building in 2000.
“It wasn’t until we renovated this storefront by taking out the old ceilings and putting new lights in and dressing it up that we were able to attract a tenant because nobody wanted to come in when it looked the way it did," Harrison said about one of the oldest buildings in Winamac.
But that took about a decade and a half to accomplish to what it is today. The historical society applied for an secured several grants, some from Indiana Landmarks. And with those funds, volunteers spent the next several years repairing the building, over $500,000 in renovations.
“Boy if these walls could talk, you know?” Hoffman said.
About 40 years ago, Hoffman saw the building while working at another flower shop in Winamac that has since closed.
“I said, ‘Man, this would be such an awesome building for a flower shop,'" Hoffman recalled. "And here I am. I’m still pinching myself.”
The storefront next to the opera house is expected to have another tenant at the first of the year in 2018, Harrison said. He said the floral and gift shop is one of several new small businesses that has moved into downtown Winamac over the past year.
Before then, many in the community viewed Winamac as a dying town like others across the state, Hoffman said. Harrison, who's also treasurer for Winamac's main street organization, Wander Our Winamac, or WOW!, said now there are only a few vacant storefronts downtown.
“Now our community needs to support those local business in order for them to stick around," he said.
Melanie Burger, who's the president of WOW! and also clerk-treasurer of the town of about 2,300 residents, said the trail downtown, the Winamac Parkway, has helped draw people to the area. They can connect to the parkway off the Panhandle Pathway that extends to France Park.
Burger hopes the downtown keeps its small businesses so people in the community and traveling on the trail can stop and shop local. Brad Zellers, town manager of Winamac, said the town will soon have public restrooms downtown in order to better serve residents.
WOW! recently launched a storefront decorating contest for downtown businesses. Anyone can vote for the winner on the organization's Facebook page until 8 a.m. Dec. 15.
This summer, while the floral and gift shop was starting up, Zellers said a few other business owners painted and improved their store facades.
“A lot of buildings got a lot of work done to it this year. People care," he said. "We’re grateful for that.”
The town has also applied for grants to improve infrastructure over the past few years. He said Winamac has procured a reputation of being a retirement community. Zellers said the town has many jobs in the manufacturing industry that he hopes young adults obtain.
“Spruce it up. Make it nice. Modernize it a little bit. They’ll come," Zellers said.