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Crowning Glory

A sensitive restoration of an 1885 building in Red Cloud, Nebraska, creates a destination celebrating the life and work of author Willa Cather.


National Willa Cather Center

Showing the addition on the back of the Red Cloud Opera House.

After years of planning and fundraising, the vision of the Willa Cather Foundation finally came to fruition, resulting in the transformation of a nearly block long structure—commonly referred to as the Moon Block building—comprised of five separate bays attached to the Opera House into the National Willa Cather Center. While the Red Cloud Opera House building was already serving as home to the Willa Cather Museum and Willa Cather Foundation, the restoration of the Moon Block building included the creation of additional museum space, state-of-the art archives storage, research and office space, commercial storefronts, apartments and a green room connected to the Red Cloud Opera House. An addition on the back of the building houses an elevator, staircase and passage to the Opera House, fulfilling ADA and egress requirements. In total, the project encompassed the renovation of 22,700 square feet and an addition of 2,200 square feet. Tru-Built’s Steve Powell and Tucker Lange served as superintendent and project manager, respectively.

Over the years, a majority of the nearly block long structure had been modified. The Moon Block building is constructed of primarily brick exterior with wood storefronts, while the interior is wood joists on post and beam and brick supporting walls. After an initial, careful demolition phase, the architectural and design teams were able to get a better perspective of what the project would entail and develop a plan. Some of the issues found were floor elevations did not match, fire damage, the diverse direction of structural framing, and many inconsistent paint colors and materials used.National Willa Cather Center

On the exterior, the historic wood storefronts were one of the biggest project challenges. Three of the storefronts were poorly replicated and had been replaced in the 1980s; the other two had lower portions cut out and replaced with a modern shed roof and awning. Knowing this area needed special attention, Tru-Built hired Schamber Historic Preservation to help with the storefront’s preservation and restoration.

One of the most interesting components of the renovation was the archives room, which houses the nation’s largest collection of materials related to the life and works of Willa Cather, such as original artifacts, historic photographs, rare books, art and personal possessions belonging to Cather and her family. Because of the delicacy of such materials, it is necessary for them to be housed in a strict climate-controlled environment. The process of creating such an area involved blocking original windows but still maintaining the restored appearance with trim and masonry. A malleable plastic barrier was installed around the walls below the roof and above the ceiling. Specialized mechanical equipment was installed to maintain a consistent temperature and strict humidity conditions.

Emphasis on Reuse

From the beginning of the project, the entire team focused on the historical preservation of many of the 1885 building’s original features, such as tin ceiling panels, interior trim and doors, hardware, brick and wood flooring. These items were carefully removed then either safely stored on site or transported to off-site facilities for stripping, repair and refinishing. Stacks of millwork had to be sorted through to determine what was damaged beyond repair and what could be reused with new millwork designed to replicate the original. Doors and jambs were repaired to be functional but still show years of distress for historical purposes within the Tru-Built workshop. The door hardware had to be counted, stripped of years of dirt, grime, multiple layers of paint, and then polished to look new.

Wood floors on the second floor had been severely damaged over the years due to water leaking from the roof. A portion of the flooring was reused after being carefully removed board by board and nail by nail. Large holes in the sub-floor were filled, two layers of gypcrete were poured, and then the saved original wood flooring was re-installed alongside new.

National Willa Cather Center

Shown is one of the tin ceiling panel designs and cornice in one of the main-floor bays.

Three of the main-floor bays had tin ceiling panels and cornice—each with a different design. After sorting through large piles to determine what could be reused, Tru-Built shipped originals of each style to W.F. Norman, a company that still replicates tin ceiling parts. New pieces from the company were installed alongside the repaired original tin ceiling and cornices. This is just one example of the team of subcontractors and suppliers Steve and Tucker worked with and managed. While local subcontractors and suppliers were utilized as much as possible, contributions also came from the Nebraska cities of Omaha, Lincoln, Hastings, Holdrege, Grand Island, Kearney and others.

Back to Glory

This project was the largest construction activity in Red Cloud in many years. The town’s residents all seem to have personal memories of the building and its past uses. In addition to community interest, there were many board members, donors, architectural groups and historical society members who were interested in following the construction progress, so Tru-Built facilitated several tours during different phases.

Since the completion of the project, the overall look of the downtown area of the city is highly noticeable. The significance of the National Willa Cather Center is far greater than the building that was remodeled. This project is considered a major milestone in recognizing Willa Cather’s enduring legacy in the town of Red Cloud. QR

Members of the team who brought the National Willa Cather Center project to fruition, from left to right: Bo Jones, co-owner, Tru-Built Construction; Tucker Lange, project manager, Tru-Built Construction; Roger Slosson, project manager/senior associate, BVH Architecture; Steve Powell, co-owner and project superintendent, Tru-Built Construction; Ashley Olson, executive director of The Willa Cather Foundation; and Adam Ramaekers of Project Advocates. 

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