Preservation Magazine, Winter 2022

Watch the Drama Unfold at These 6 Historic Opera Houses

In the rapidly expanding United States of the late 19th century, anywhere that wished to be considered somewhere needed an opera house. Civic-minded businesspeople built them, often with storefront shops at street level and performance halls above. Towns and cities built them, sometimes combining them with municipal offices. They hosted traveling theater troupes, vaudeville shows, concerts, public lectures, dances, auctions—virtually any event that required a large indoor space. For most, actual operas appear to have been a rarity, but “opera house” was deemed more dignified than “theater” or, heaven forbid, “dance hall.”

By the 1920s, the emerging mass media of the phonograph, radio, and movies were making live entertainment passé. In the decades that followed, countless local opera houses were demolished, shuttered, or converted to other uses. By the time Americans began to rediscover those that survived, many had gathered dust for decades. The good news today for those survivors: People are interested in restoring not only their historic architecture, but also their original function as vibrant centers of the arts and community life.

Opera House, San Francisco

photo by: Steven Bullock

Newly remodeled seating at San Francisco's War Memorial Opera House has improved comfort levels and sightlines to the stage.

The Howell Opera House in Howell, Michigan, is typical of the local opera houses that once dotted the Midwest. “As far as we can find, there seem to be 28 left [in Michigan],” says Sharon Fisher, vice president of the Livingston Arts Council, which has owned the building since 2000. The Victorian redbrick structure was built by two local entrepreneurs in 1881, with a ground-floor commercial space that would serve as a hardware store for the next 120 years.

The auditorium that occupies the two upper floors hosted concerts, plays, political rallies, and virtually every other large indoor gathering in this rural county seat. “It was the only building large enough to hold any number of people,” Fisher says, “so all the community events took place here.” That included all of the town’s high school graduations from 1881 until 1924, when the auditorium was declared off-limits to the public due to fire code violations. Fisher’s organization is currently fundraising for a $12 million project to restore the auditorium, which remains in a state of arrested decay, and add elevators and service spaces in a connected building already bought for that purpose.

When the nonprofit Driver Opera House Center for the Arts bought its namesake opera house in 2012, the Darlington, Wisconsin, building’s second-floor auditorium had been closed to the public for more than six decades. Few locals remembered climbing its stairs to attend a Darlington High School graduation, American Legion dance, or Hayloft Hotshot Amateur Show. But before addressing the dilapidated performance space, which had been shuttered due to the upper floor’s inadequate structure, the organization had to carry out a $1.3 million project to protect the ground-floor storefront spaces and basement from a different hazard: periodic flooding of the nearby Pecatonica River.

With the flood mitigation project’s completion in 2018, the organization turned its attention to the space above, which dates from the building’s original construction in 1883. “It’s a flat-floor opera house,” board president Jean Kendall says, “and all the seats were on rails of wood. They would pull them over to the center for plays, and then for the dances they shoved them to the side.” In 2019 the opera house hosted 300 people for a family musical showcase, its first public event in 68 years. Fundraising continues for a planned full restoration.
The exterior of Barre Opera House in Barre, Vermont.

photo by: Kenneth C. Zirkel

Italian immigrants brought masonry and opera skills to Barre Opera House in Vermont.

Barre, Vermont, was built on the granite industry, so it is fitting that its opera house, which opened in 1899, is partly made of locally quarried stone. Granite is woven through the building’s history in other ways as well, says Barre Opera House director Dan Casey. The town’s Italian-immigrant stone workers brought with them a love of opera, and while many of its counterparts around the country were opera houses primarily in name, “at one point there were four amateur opera companies performing at the Barre Opera House,” Casey says.

The building’s “flying bridge” catwalks may have been another Italian import. Until a recent renovation, Casey explains, “we were what they call a ‘hemp house,’ with sandbags and ropes to control all the rigging.” The renovation replaced the old system with mechanized equipment, but the catwalks were retained for their historical value. Carried out during a pandemic closure, the project also included the installation of period-appropriate seating and an interior paint job. “A paint test conducted in the early 1980s helped us determine what the original colors were, and those findings were supported by articles discovered in the local newspaper archives,” Casey says.

That appreciation for civic history is shared by the mountain resort town of Aspen, Colorado, which was founded in 1879 as a mining camp. “This is a town of 7,000 people with 300 landmark buildings,” says Aspen historic preservation officer Natalie Feinberg Lopez. Even amid such bounty, though, the Wheeler Opera House holds pride of place in both the downtown streetscape and the hearts of community members. “It’s a workhorse as well,” Feinberg Lopez says. In an ordinary year, the theater that occupies its upper floors—the ground floor holds commercial space—is between 90 and 95 percent booked.

The interior of the Wheeler Opera House in Aspen, Colorado

photo by: Hal Williams

The interior of the Wheeler Opera House in Aspen, Colorado, in 2020.

The exterior of the Wheeler Opera House in Aspen, Colorado

photo by: Wheeler Opera House

The Wheeler’s exterior in 2015.

And while the Wheeler Opera House stage was dark from March of 2020 to May of 2021, due to a pandemic closure, the town of Aspen was busy restoring the building’s distinctive stone facades, which had suffered from salt exposure, improper maintenance, and damage from a fire. The quarry that supplied the original basalt peachblow sandstone had closed, but a quarry in Wyoming was able to provide an almost identical match. The project replaced roughly 18 percent of the original stone masonry, using hand-chiseled blocks weighing up to 1,500 pounds each.

The 19th-century opera house boom brought centers of culture and civic life to towns, large and small, across the U.S. It also shared its era with Jim Crow segregation laws and the ascendency of minstrel shows, in which white performers simultaneously appropriated and mocked Black music and culture. The National Negro Opera Company House in Pittsburgh stands as a reminder of the historical exclusion of people of color from mainstream American cultural life, and of the resilience and resourcefulness with which Black artists responded.

Mary Cardwell Dawson, the founder of the National Negro Opera Company.

photo by: National Opera House

Acclaimed opera teacher Mary Cardwell Dawson, the founder of the National Negro Opera Company.

Built in 1894, the Queen Anne–style mansion served during the 1940s and ’50s as the headquarters of the National Negro Opera Company—the longest-running Black opera company in the country—and the home of its founder, Mary Cardwell Dawson, an opera singer and educator whose students included the jazz pianist and composer Ahmad Jamal. For decades the house was a haven and cultural hub for Black luminaries.

“On any given night, there might be opera singers, Joe Louis, Lena Horne, and Count Basie, just chilling in the living room,” says Jonnet Solomon. Solomon is executive director of National Opera House, a nonprofit working to restore the badly decayed structure, which was included on the National Trust’s list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in 2020. National Opera House has raised $750,000 of the $3 million required for the project, including $75,000 from the National Trust’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund in 2021. The restoration will prepare the building again to serve people from underrepresented communities with training for careers in the arts.

The exterior of the National Negro Opera House in PIttsburgh.

photo by: Ed Massery

The National Negro Opera Company House today.

The War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco was established exclusively to present the arts. Home to the San Francisco Opera since its opening in 1932, it is also a regular venue for ballet performances. A local and international landmark—the United Nations Charter was drafted here in 1945—the Beaux Arts building has never been out of the spotlight.

But even gems require occasional polishing. The most recent upgrade, carried out during a COVID-19 closure, centered on replacing the hall’s original orchestra-level seating. “The old seat was designed almost like an easy chair,” former assistant managing director Jennifer Norris explains, with a low seat cushion that could become uncomfortable during long performances and a bulky, upholstered back that limited legroom for taller patrons.

The new chair, while loosely based on the old design, is more upright and incorporates a wooden back with thinner, more supportive cushioning. “We didn’t move where the rows are,” Norris says, “but it feels like we did because you’re sitting up a little higher, and you gain that extra two-and-a-half-to-three inches, and suddenly it feels like every seat is slightly farther away from the one in front of it.” The new seating plan also improves the audience experience by staggering rows laterally for better sightlines to the stage.

As audiences across the country emerge from isolation, such upgrades—to opera houses both humble and grand—will only enhance the long-awaited reopening of these historic hometown treasures.

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Bruce D. Snider is an architect, writer, and editor based in Belfast, Maine.

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