Tibbits Opera House, built in 1882, is the second oldest operating theatre in Michigan. Designed by Detroit architect, Mortimer Smith, the stand-alone opera house with its exquisite French Second Empire façade was far more impressive than other theatres of the era. The fact it survives and continues to operate as a theatre servicing southern Michigan and northern Indiana makes it even more rare today and worthy of preserving.
In the 1930s, the opera house was converted into a “modern” movie theater with new décor on the interior, new seating and a white tile Art Deco façade. By the 1950s the theatre was closed. It fell into disrepair and was in jeopardy of being torn down. In 1962 the Tibbits Opera Foundation and Arts Council, Inc. was formed and purchased the building. Efforts through the next decade were focused on getting the theatre fixed up and operating with no consideration of historic preservation. The result is a 1960s interpretation of Victorian décor with red flocked wall paper, wood paneling, stucco ceiling and conventional theatre seating. A horseshoe-shaped balcony, decorative box seats and proscenium arch maintain the original character and suggest the elegance which remains hidden.
In 1998, efforts to restore the theatre to its original architectural grandeur began with a feasibility study. Design Development plans were completed in 2002. Construction of a handicap accessible entrance, restroom and the addition of an elevator were completed in 2005. Completed in 2013, the façade is fully restored to its original 1882 splendor. The project received the State of Michigan Governor’s Award for Historic Preservation, The MHPN Gem Award, the Association of Building and Constructors Excellence in Historic Restoration Award, the North American Copper in Architecture Restoration Award and the Branch Area Chamber of Commerce Community Project Award.
Tibbits Opera House serves as the arts and cultural center of Branch County and the surrounding area. The intimate 499-seat theatre offers nearly-perfect acoustics and great entertainment year-round. Tibbits produces a professional summer theatre program which USA Today called one of “10 great places to see the lights way off Broadway.” Through the rest of the year Tibbits presents professional touring artists, children’s programs, art exhibits as well as community arts and cultural events.
Tibbits Opera House has completed the first three phases of restoration. With the completion of the third phase, the newly restored 1882 façade stands as a testament to the organization, the board, volunteers, the skill and craftsmanship of those involved in the project, and the determination of a community to fully restore and preserve the theatre for generations to come. Through the restoration process Tibbits has demonstrated the value of preserving these buildings of the past.