An old opera house recovers as an Arcadia landmark
More than a century old, the Heard again serves as a resilient reminder of the town’s history.
The antique shops lining the streets of Arcadia’s town center attract their share of visitors, but a short walk up a flight of stairs to the Heard Opera House is the fastest way to a trip back in time.
The Heard, recently restored to its early 20th century glory and repaired after damage done by Hurricane Ian, stands again as a symbol of resiliency in this DeSoto County town 45 minutes east from coastal Manatee and Sarasota.
The Heard, built in 1906 by J.J. Heard originally with a bank on the ground floor and theater space upstairs, has a history of leading Arcadia back from disaster. A fire swept through the downtown a year before the Heard opened, leveling virtually every building.
Ever since, such diverse tenants as a theater, an antique shop, a dentist, the tax collector and others have done business in the Heard, which occupies half of the 100 block of West Oak Street in the historic district.
A music school occupies space there now, along with an event planner and more. An instrument shop and screen printing business also reside in the site Trip Advisor calls DeSoto’s No. 1 visitor attraction.
A gathering spot in DeSoto County
Danny Mastrodonato, the building’s 42-year-old live-in caretaker who occupies an apartment below the Heard with his family, said history is repeating as the Opera House returns to its glory and its place as a gathering spot in DeSoto County’s biggest town.
“The whole entire town started here again,” he said. “After the hurricane, we got damaged really bad. A lot of people did, so we had to do the same thing. We had to become the central place again.”
Principally, Ian’s winds blew in the two windows in the main theater space. The pressure, once inside, crumbled a wall, sending cement blocks smashing through the floor and surrounding walls.
“The back wall of the stage fell and crushed our apartment,” Mastrodonato said. “We lost our apartment. We lost our business. We lost our building all in a few hours.”
Mastrodonato almost lost his family, too.
He said his wife, 41-year-old Krissy Constantino, had a last-minute notion to evacuate, likely saving their lives. Constantino owns the on-site music school and works as the building’s second caretaker. The damage sustained in the storm was so severe that the building was condemned for two months. After working with city officials to create a list of necessary repairs, the building has reopened and restoration work has been completed.
All repairs were paid for out of pocket and with the help of local donations, according to Mastrodonato. Because the building is owned outright, no federal or state assistance was available for repairs, he said.
The owner, Marginy, Inc., which is run by 80-year-old Jean Vavrovsky, has had to pay upwards of $920,000 so far to rebuild. With these repairs, the decision was made to restore the building to as close to original as possible, including keeping 117-year-old ceiling tiles and wood floors. They are even able to use wood sourced from the same forest used in the original 1906 construction. The building and the land have an assessed value of about $258,600, according to the DeSoto County Property Appraiser.
But the value to the community is far greater, said City Administrator Terry Stewart.
A lasting investment
“Most communities work very hard to take care of the basics, you know, water, sewer, trash pickup, you know, keep your roads in good shape, open, things of that nature,” Stewart said. “But when a community gets to the point that they can begin investing or people are investing in bringing things like arts and cultural activities to a community, that’s one of the things that truly adds to the quality of life.”
To ensure the Heard remains a lasting investment, the two windows that were blown out during the storm were not replaced, as an engineer suggested this would be best for structural integrity. As all major repairs have been completed, Mastrodonato wants people to know that the doors are open, and business is in full swing.
Visitors can enjoy various activities, and new ideas are always welcome. Wednesday nights are band nights, with dozens of people coming together to enjoy and play music. People can play pool, record a podcast, learn to play an instrument or just hang out in the space, according to Mastrodonato.
“Come up these stairs and it’s going to change your life,” Mastrodonato said, leading the way from the street level to the space once popular with local performers until Hurricane Donna ripped off the roof in 1960. “Everyone’s welcome up here.”
Life returned to the opera house in 1989 when it was made into an antique store that doubled as a museum. In 2021, Mastrodonato and his wife, started a petition to return the opera house to its original use. The petition garnered over 1,000 signatures and was presented to Vavrovsky, at which time he agreed to turn the space into a community center.
To keep up with the opera house’s most recent happenings, follow them on Facebook. The opera house is open Monday through
Saturday and located at 106 W Oak St.
This story is courtesy of the Community News Collaborative, made possible by a grant from Charles & Margery Barancik Foundation. You can reach Sarah Owens at firstname.lastname@example.org