• Geoffrey Dean

Summer Song: The Ashland (WI) Grand Opera House

Updated: Sep 16



I discovered the Ashland Grand Opera House on a recent trip to the Chequamegon Bay area on the southern shores of Lake Superior. A city of about 8,000 inhabitants, Ashland, Wisconsin, was founded in 1854. For a time it was the third busiest Great Lakes port, behind Chicago and Buffalo, with ships loaded with northern Wisconsin pine, brownstone, and iron ore departing from Ashland to supply the rest of the Midwest and points beyond. The central ore dock was, at the time of its completion in 1925, the largest concrete structure of its kind in the world. Extending 1800 feet from the lake shore, the ore dock rose to a height of eighty feet and was used to convey ore-laden train cars to chutes that angled out to the ships waiting at either side below. In 2013 the dock was leveled and laid out as a park that to me has the feel of an archeological excavation, in part perhaps because the development project was only partially completed. (See before and after photos and read a detailed dock history here.)

The Ashland Oredock Mural. Photo courtesy of visitashland.com


We first learned of the ore dock on a tour through the streets of downtown Ashland, where more than twenty expansive murals adorn as many facades, each visualizing a chapter in the story of Ashland and its citizens. (See why Ashland is the Historic Mural Capital of Wisconsin here.) Most of the murals are on the blocks adjacent to Main Street, to the west of the central boulevard named for one of Ashland’s founding citizens, Dr. Edwin Ellis, who used to travel between Ashland and St. Paul on foot. (Read Dr. Ellis's 1888 account of Ashland’s early days here.) The murals also led us to some of the historic brownstone buildings along and near Main Street, a number of them designed by Henry Wildhagen (1856-1920), an important northern Wisconsin architect who lived in Ashland from the 1890s.


One of the murals is a tribute to local railroad workers and located near the former train depot, an impressive brownstone structure two blocks south of Main on 3rd Ave. W. As we walked along 3rd Ave. a smaller building on the east side of the street caught my attention. A painted, poster-like sign identified it as the Ashland Grand Opera House. An attempt had been made to visualize a fanciful operatic scene through mural art on a more miniature scale. The familiar likeness of famed operatic tenor Luciano Pavarotti in full voice covers an upper window, while a Wagnerian soprano holds forth from another. The boarded up doors, no doubt leading to the second-story performance space, and twin abandoned store-fronts on the ground level make the prolonged disuse of the building painfully apparent. But the signage seems an encouraging indication that the opera house is still a source of local pride in Ashland.


The Romanesque revival style red brick building was built in 1893, the same year that Northland College was founded at Wheeler Hall in south Ashland. The opera house's more dainty features contrast with the bold outlines and truly “grand” scale of more imposing Ashland brownstone structures, such as the former Royal Theatre, constructed in 1914 on a Neoclassical revival design by Wildhagen. Located close to city hall along Main St., the Royal once seated 750, and after a period of vacancy it is now being repurposed as home to a bevvy of boutiques. The opera house was also originally intended for a Main Street address, and was initially designed on a larger scale. Perhaps the documents in the collection of the Wisconsin Historical Society (only available off-line) could shed more light on the reasons that the opera house was reduced to a more modest scale and built at its actual “off-Main” location. It seems likely that the financial Panic of 1893 made cost-cutting measures necessary to bring the project to fruition at all.


The Ashland Grand Opera House is one of about 200 such structures designed by Chicago-based “theatrical architect” Oscar Cobb (1842-1908, not to be confused with Henry Ives Cobb of the Chicago architectural team of Cobb and Frost, as I discovered while researching this post), most of them built in the Midwest. (See p. 120 here for an obituary of Cobb.) Cobb was the architect of 11 theatres in Chicago alone, and similar types of buildings were constructed to his specifications in towns and cities in states from Kansas to Kentucky, and as far east as Syracuse, New York.


Very few of Oscar Cobb's theatres have survived. Some were lost to fire, others demolished to make way for department stores, parking garages, and, in St. Louis, major league baseball's Busch Stadium. Of the Cobb-designed opera houses that still exist, two located in Kentucky (the 1885 Washington Opera House in Maysville and the Lexington Opera House of 1886) may be the only ones that are currently in use as venues for live performances. Another, the 1893 Stevens Point, WI, opera house, will reopen on September 15, 2022 after languishing through decades of failed revival attempts; only one-third of the original structure remains. So the continued existence of the Ashland Grand Opera House after 130 years, even in its current state of disuse, is as surprising as it is heart-warming.


While a few of Cobb’s opera house designs did originally see service as opera houses in the strict classical sense, most were never intended for the performance of opera. They were either used as community meeting places, or, as in the case of the Ashland hall, the site of vaudeville performances and other lighter, variety show fare. Later many of these halls were converted into movie theatres, as the numerous Cobb-related entries on the Cinema Treasures site attest. Like the "Grand Opera House" appellation, the current presence of Pavarotti on the Ashland façade speaks volumes about how names and symbols are freely appropriated to suggest a higher level of cultural sophistication. An older image of the Ashland Grand Opera House reveals a curious juxtaposition of forms of entertainment: this house of high culture at one time hosted both a liquor store and a gun shop.

The Ashland Grand Opera House photos were taken by yours truly on Tuesday, August 10, 2022.


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