The Meyer Hall project is still a remarkable story of historical preservation
It was a monumental story of the local government being able to step in and preserve history, yet also finding a way for it to have a future. It all started in the Barn Theatre at the Cowley County Fairgrounds. For the Winfield Community Theatre, which began in 1967, putting on their productions at this site was all they had for several decades. It endured numerous floods from the nearby Walnut River, which caused substantial damage to the structure.
The October Flood of 1998, however, caused the worst of it. The structure had suffered greatly and there was no telling how much more life it still had left to it. It was shortly after that when the Winfield Community Theatre board members began to look at other options.
Ever since June of 1986, Meyer Hall, like the other buildings at the former St. John’s College, had been sitting in darkness with the closure of the school. In the immediate aftermath of the closing, the City of Winfield purchased the entire former campus. Little by little, the buildings that made up the former college campus began to be re-purposed by other organizations and put to use again.
The former college library became the Winfield City Library in 1990. Rehwinkle Hall, the former boys dormitory, was bought by Metroplains Properties in 1993 and converted into use for elderly housing. Timothy Hall, another boys dormitory, quickly followed with various agencies, such as the Winfield School District, at one time taking ownership.
Meyer Hall was the property that the Winfield Community Theatre became interested in. In 2002, the theatre was able to take ownership of the third floor and the chapel on the main floor. The classrooms that had been on the third floor were now to be used for costume storage on one side, while props would be located on the other. In those rooms, walls had been torn out to make what was once two classrooms into one wide-open room. Creative Community Living owned the other parts of the building, with the main level outside the former chapel, plus the basement.
According to the lease agreement signed between the Winfield Community Theatre and the City of Winfield on Dec. 2nd, 2002, the theater will pay the city one dollar per year to keep renting the property. The city agreed to pay all utilities and real estate taxes. The city also agreed to employ Heckman and Associates, P.A., of Independence to complete the development plans necessary for this renovation.
SMR Builders, of Winfield, was decided upon as the general contractor. The budget agreed upon for this project was $318,178.00. The theater paid the city the sum of $50,000 towards the project. Upon execution of the lease, $5,000 was applied, with $20,000 on or before Dec. 31, 2002, and $25,000 on or before Dec. 31, 2004.
The major work remained to be done inside the chapel and balcony. Many of the rooms and hallways inside the old St. John’s buildings looked like time had literally stood still after the last day of school in 1986. In many places, it looked normal. In others, it looked as if things had been ripped out. For example, inside Meyer Hall, there had been a fair amount of damage done to the sidewalk and parts of the floor in removing the large church organ that had been used for the church services.
In early December of 2002, various contractors from around the area began to extensively work inside the chapel and balcony area. All of the orange chairs were removed so they would not be damaged during the process. That also allowed room for the massive amounts of scaffolding that went up.
In order to facilitate the dressing/green room underneath the stage, a set of stairs would have to be constructed that allowed access from the stage to the room below.
By the first of the year, the stage had been stripped down, with the stairs, paneling, and proscenium all having been removed. New wiring and HVAC system were being readied for installation. In the chapel area, it was not uncommon now to see workers on top of the scaffolding and working near the ceiling.
In the balcony area, there would be a new floor that would accommodate storage and the new light booth. Down on the stage, it would actually be extended out a few more feet, giving the performers even more space. The ornate church windows on the sides would have new insulation as well as curtains.
The whole place was barely finished and ready to go for the next production to make its debut in June of 2003. ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ went off without a hitch and has continued a long line of productions over the ensuing years.
In addition to stage productions, events such as weddings have even occurred here. My wife and I got married inside Meyer Hall on November 17th, 2012. My wife took part in several productions over the years, along with other local talent. I even acted in one of them, ‘The Boys Next Door’, a few years ago.
Melody Krueger said, “Julia Lambert and I did direct the first show there when we moved in. I was also on the committee to find the new location, and was on the committee throughout the process. It took about three years to get to the point of moving in.”
Dan Simpson has acted in, as well as directed, several of the productions. He is also on the Theatre Board. He said, “As a member of the community theatre, I really enjoy using the theatre at Meyer Hall. It’s not as big as most theatres, but that adds to its closeness and being able to interact with the community as a community theatre should be able to.”
Mary Lowe-Gann is another theat veteran who has acted in, as well as directed, several productions. She said, “I love the Community Theatre and I feel that anyone who does a show there becomes a part of a large family who loves theater just as much as the rest of us. We always love to have new faces to become part of our family as well. And of course you will see people past and present who love theater.”
Mary also added with a sense of intrigue of how she believes the theater is haunted. She claims to have seen a figure dressed in white up in the balcony. Eight years ago, a local paranormal group walked through the building late one evening and one of the people swore they heard an organ playing.
After researching the building, it was found there had been an organ in the balcony, but it had been removed upon closure of the college in 1986.
Since its start as the administration building for St. John’s College in 1924, it was the focal point for the Johnnie spirit that still can be felt in Baden Square. For the Winfield Community Theatre, though, it has been a source of pride for the entire community since 1967. With the rebirth of Meyer Hall in 2003, it will continue for decades to come.