Oscar's Opera Houses: A Virtual Tour
Updated: Sep 16, 2022
As a follow-up to my Ashland Grand Opera House post, here are the briefest of sketches on some of the late 19th-century opera houses built to designs by Chicago theatrical architect Oscar Cobb (1842-1908). These 24 buildings represent about 12% of the 200 or more theatres Cobb designed. I have arranged them by state, with asterisks denoting the five that are still standing today. The other 19 were lost to fire or demolished; the year of destruction is given next to the year of construction. Images are always below the entry they illustrate.
Selma Opera House, Selma, AL (1880s-1972). 1000 seats. Appears to be synonymous with the hall of the Selma Academy of Music and the Edwards Opera House, both of which were managed by Louis Gerstman until 1896. A period postcard depicts the exterior (see image below). A movie theatre by 1914, it was known from 1938 as the Wilby Theatre. Lost to fire in 1972.
Belleville Opera House and Block, Belleville, IL (1880s-1903). Listed among Oscar Cobb's designs realized by 1885, in Origin, Growth, and Usefulness of the Chicago Board of Trade, p. 175. Lost to fire in 1903, per a local news item.
Doxey Theatre, Anderson, IN (1885-1893). 41-47 N. Meridian St. More than 1400 seats. Replaced the short-lived original Doxey Opera House (1883-4, lost to fire). 3 stories. According to a local news article, the auditorium was 125 feet wide and 225 feet deep, with a third-floor gallery overlooking the second-floor balcony. Largely lost to fire on March 30 1893; the salvaged front part became the Banner Store in 1895. Doxey later had another, smaller opera house (cap. 1400) built as part of a larger building, the Opera Block.
Keokuk Opera House, Keokuk, IA (1879-1923). 26 N. 6th Street at Blondeau Street. 1064 seats. Renamed the Grand Theater in 1914, lost to fire in December 1923. In 1925 a new Grand Theatre built on the old foundation was opened, and is still in use today. Source: Grand Theatre (with the photo shown below).
Peavey Grand Opera House, Sioux City, IA (1888-1931). Corner of Fourth and Jones. 1300 seats. The four-story building also housed the local Chamber of Commerce and a retail store. Romanesque revival style. The hall itself was home to an auto repair service sometime after 1909. Lost to fire. Sources: George D. Glenn and Richard L. Poole, Opera Houses of Iowa ((Iowa State University Press: 1993); Sioux City Municipal Auditorium; Photo below courtesy of the Sioux City Journal.
Knowls Opera House, Washington, KS (dates unknown). Listed in the 1885 Origin, Growth, and Usefulness of the Chicago Board of Trade, p. 175.
Frankfort Opera House, Frankfort, KY (1883-1979). 207-211 West Main Street. On upper floor of the City Hall building designed by Cobb. The hoodmolds were “stylized versions of musical instruments” (per NRHS documentation). Later known as the Capitol Theatre. Sources: Marilyn Casto, Actors, Audiences, and Historic Theaters of Kentucky (Univ. Press of Kentucky: 2021 ebook); National Park Service; Capitol Theatre entry with photo of partially-demolished bldg showing balcony section; photo of intact Capitol Theater in Richard Cavendish,The Botanic Garden and My Old Kentucky Plays (2020 ebook); Engineering Record, vol. 8 (1883) p. 477.
*Lexington Opera House, Lexington, KY (1886-). 145 N. Broadway. Originally with 1250 seats, now with less than 1000. 3 stories, High Victorian Eclectic style, with two balconies. Used as movie theatre after 1926-ca 1961. Since 1976, the restored opera house has been used as a live performance venue. Next door to it is another extant historical building, the Yates Bookshop Building (ca 1875). Sources: National Park Service entry; The National Registry of Historic Places (1976 edition, p. 188); Lexington Opera House photo below; Lexington Opera House website.
Louisville Opera House, Louisville, KY (dates unknown). Listed in the 1885 Origin, Growth, and Usefulness of the Chicago Board of Trade, p. 175. See also Mark Alan Schultz, A History of the Louisville Opera-House.
*Washington Opera House, Maysville, KY (1885-). 116 West 2nd St. Now seats 1000. 2.5 stories, with theatre on the ground floor. Original stage dimensions etc. given in the 1903 Cahn/Hill Theatrical Guide, p. 401. Opened in February 1885, fire damaged in 1898, restored soon thereafter. The fire department shared the building with the theatre until 1940. In 1968 it was sold to the Maysville Players, who continue to use the space for their productions. The city of Maysville describes it as “the fifth oldest theatre [in the US] still in use today.” Below: A 2010 exterior photo by Greg Hume.
Temple Opera House, Duluth, MN (1889-1896). 8-12 2nd Avenue East. Part of the Temple Opera Block, in Richardson Romanesque style with Moorish detailing similar to Cobb's design for the St. Louis Grand Opera house (see below). Had three tiers and a total of eighteen boxes. Designed by McMillen & Stebbins in consultation with Cobb, who was responsible for the interior design according to this item, which quotes an 1889 description of the decorations and includes an exterior photo.
Grand Opera House, Minneapolis, MN (1883-1897). Sixth Street, next to then-new Syndicate Block. Seated 1400. Three-tiered. Site of Shakespeare and Italian opera productions. Closed in 1895 after a competing opera house opened three blocks away. Demolished in 1897. Source: Larry Millett, Lost Twin Cities (MN Historical Society Press: 1992), pp. 156-9 (with photos).
St. Paul Grand Opera House (1883-1889) Wabasha Street. 2200 seats. Had electrical lighting from 1884. Lost to fire on the morning of January 21, 1889. Per "Grand Opera House, St. Paul"
Opera House, Winona, MN (1892-1990). 167 Johnson Street. 1200 seats. Three stories, with two large balconies. Converted to movie theatre in 1926, with new front façade, renamed Winona Theatre. A restaurant after 1978. Demolished in 1990. Sources: Walter Bennick, Winona (Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing Company: 2012 ), pp. 109-114 (with photos); The Inland Architect and News Record, April 1892; a post-1926 photo here
Grand Opera House, St. Louis, MO (ca 1884-1963). 514 Market Street. 2300 seats. Built to replace former Grand Opera House at same address that burned down in 1884. Later known as the Grand Theater. The Moorish style of the exterior is similar to the Temple Opera House of Duluth, MN (see above). Was an opera and vaudeville venue until 1940s, then hosted burlesque. Demolished to make way for Busch Studium, home of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team. Per "Grand Opera House, 1885," with the exterior sketch seen below.
Wood’s Opera House, Sedalia, MO (1884-after 1902). Second Street and Lamine Avenue. 1560 seats, with stage dimensions 40 ft by 70 ft, per listing in Harry Miner’s American Dramatic Directory, p, 220 (1884). On Nov. 24, 1899, Scott Joplin’s The Ragtime Dance, described here as “a stage work for dancers and singing narrator…illustrating the type of dancing…done in the Black 400 and Maple Leaf clubs,” was staged at Wood’s Opera House with members of the local Black 400 Club performing. Like the first Sedalia Opera House (cap. 800) opened in 1867, Wood’s Opera House was lost to fire, year unknown (see Sedalia preservation plan, p. 6) Photo below dated ca 1902, from SHSMO digital collection.
[New] Wieting Opera House, Syracuse NY. (1897-1930) Cobb designed the 1897 reincarnation of the opera house, four earlier versions of which had all been lost to fire. Overlooking the Erie Canal, the building was demolished after Shubert Bros. lease ran out in 1930, and a parking garage built. Currently the site of The Atrium at Clinton Square (1972-). Source: "Wieting Opera House"; image below a 1913 postcard from Onondaga County Public Library collection (opera house is at right).
Heuck's [New] Opera House, Cincinnati, OH (1882-1959). NW corner of Vine and 13th streets, Over-the-Rhine. Demolished in about 1959. (These details per Architecture in Cincy website.) Renamed the Rialto Theater in about 1915. A parking lot currently exists on the site. Image below from Digging Cincinnati.
Faurot Opera House, Lima, OH (1882-1953). 1282 seats. The Opera Block building was 5 stories high. The theatre closed in 1934 and was demolished in 1953, when an expanded Kresge’s drug store, which had been operating on the ground floor while the opera house was still in existence, was built in its place. Image from "Faurot Opera House" is also in Lima PL collection. A YouTube video about this opera house can be found here.
Black’s Opera House, Springfield OH (1869-1903). 1500 seats. A four-story building, with the opera house on the second floor. A period drawing shows that the building also hosted a business college, the offices of the Springfield Journal, the One Price Clothing House, and several stores or offices on the first floor in addition to Andrew Black’s dry goods store. Hull Plaza is now located at the opera house site. Lost to a fire that also destroyed the local YMCA and other downtown buildings. Exterior photo from the Clark County Historical Society.
*Wellington City Hall and Opera House, Wellington, OH (1885-). Originally had 930 seats (1903 population of Wellington was 2500; see Cahn 1903-4Theatrical Guide, p. 634). Located on the second floor of the city hall building, the opera house was converted into a gym in the mid-20th century, and was still used for this purpose as of 2014. "The Opera House" discusses a 2014 fundraising campaign to build a smaller, 600-seat hall for the village of Wellington, now with a population of around 5000. Photo below taken in 2008 by Larry Pieniazek
Schultz Opera House, Zanesville, OH (1880-1953). 22 N. 5th St. 1118 seats. High Victorian style, with two balconies. Financed by the Schultz family, whose fortune came from their patented Star soap. In 1918 renamed the Liberty Theatre, later called the Imperial, and finally the Variety Theatre. Demolished to make way for a JC Penny’s department store. Sources: "Schultz Opera House Had Iconic Presence Downtown" with a 15-photo gallery showing the April 1953 demolition process, with images of two balconies, exterior statues, etc. Photo from its time as the Imperial Theatre here. See also Kathryn Lynch and Michael S. Sims, Zaneville (Arcadia, 2006), with photos of the original opera house (per Cinema Treasures entry).
*Ashland Grand Opera House, Ashland, WI (1893-). 208-210 3rd Ave. W. Two stories, Romanesque Revival style. Currently in a state of disuse, the building once hosted two stores on the ground floor, with the theatre on the upper floor. Further details here. See also my Summer Song blog post. This was the opera house that sparked my interest in Ocsar Cobb's opera house designs.
Stevens Point Opera House, Stevens Point, WI (1893-). 1124 Main St. Built the same year as the Ashland opera house. Originally the G. F. Andrae Opera House, it was later renamed the Majestic Theatre, and from the late 1920s it was known as the Fox Theatre. Following several decades of failed restoration attempts, it will reopen on September 15, 2022 as an events venue and beer garden, but only the front third of the original structure has survived.