Work is underway to restore windows broken and damaged during Iowa’s 2020 derecho at one of Coe College’s iconic buildings.
Sinclair Auditorium, which has hosted theatrical and musical performances for 70 years, has been used by the Coe community in various ways throughout the past school year, Coe spokeswoman Natalie Milke said, “but in accordance with our safe campus initiative policies, the college just opened back up to public events recently.”
High above the 1,100-seat auditorium, work has begun to rehabilitate the building’s original windows.
Terry Philips, a window expert and historic rehabilitation consultant based in Washington, Iowa, has begun the process of repairing windows damaged during the hurricane-strength derecho in August 2020.
The auditorium was built to replace Coe’s original Sinclair Memorial Chapel, which was destroyed in an arson fire in 1947. The college’s history dates back to 1851, but it wasn’t until 1910 that ground was broken for the chapel, named in honor of Thomas McElderry (T.M.) Sinclair.
Sinclair ran Sinclair & Company in Cedar Rapids, which became the fourth largest meatpacking facility in the world. During an inspection of the plant in 1881, he fell into an open elevator shaft and died shortly after.
His widow, Caroline Sinclair, began construction in 1884 on the three-story, 21-room mansion for herself and her six children that would later become known as Brucemore.
Related: History at risk after Iowa derecho
After Sinclair’s death, his family offered funding to Coe for a building to be constructed as a memorial to him, but, according to the college’s history, “because of more pressing needs on campus, it took 30 years before Sinclair Memorial Chapel was built.”
The chapel was dedicated in 1911, and in 1916, Caroline Sinclair donated $1,100 to purchase a pipe organ for the building.
On Sept. 4, 1947, a night watchman – reportedly to get revenge against a student who had slapped him two days before – started a fire in the chapel by throwing a match into a box of oily rags in the basement directly under the organ.
Stained glass windows, a new lighting system and other upgrades had all been installed within a year of the fire, which destroyed the building, while a piano, stage equipment and valuable paintings, including the portrait of the building’s namesake, T.M. Sinclair, also were lost in the blaze.
Coe’s Board of Trustees decided to construct a larger building to meet more of the college’s needs, with donations for the new Sinclair Auditorium – dedicated in 1951 – coming in from the Cedar Rapids area and beyond.
On Aug. 10, 2020. like much of Cedar Rapids, trees were uprooted and broken in half on Coe’s campus during the derecho, with the college sustaining $2.1 million in total damage related to the wind storm.
Windows on Sinclair Auditorium were broken and damaged during the unprecedented storm.
Now, not only are the auditorium’s broken glass panes being replaced, but Philips and his assistant, Jessica Dvorak of Cedar Rapids, are undergoing the tedious process of removing paint around each of the 57 panes in the three larger windows, as well as smaller side windows.
The wood will be repainted and loose panes will be secured, said Philips, owner of T.K. Enterprises.
“It will last another 70 years, no doubt,” he said.
Coe has set up a derecho recovery fund at: www.alumni.coe.edu/coerelief
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