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The short, grand life of St. Paul’s Grand Opera House

Built as a replacement for the original St. Paul Opera House, the Grand Opera House included new interior design features, electric lighting, and safety enhancements.

drawing of grand opera house
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Black-and-white print of the exterior of St. Paul’s Grand Opera House, ca. 1885.
The St. Paul Grand Opera House, built in 1883, was considered by many to be the most beautiful opera house in the Twin Cities area. Built as a replacement for the original St. Paul Opera House, the Grand Opera House included new interior design features, electric lighting, and safety enhancements. These upgrades, along with improved railroads, made the venue a desired destination for national touring companies and faithful St. Paul audiences alike.

William F. Davidson (1825–1887), a riverboat owner and St. Paul philanthropist, was one of several developers who built entertainment venues in St. Paul in the late 1800s. Davidson’s projects included the original St. Paul Opera House in 1867 and the St. Paul Grand Opera House in 1883.

As the railroads expanded in the mid-1880s, theatrical companies began to make frequent regional tours. Opera houses opened in many towns in Minnesota and across the Midwest. St. Paul newspapers called for a larger theater to accommodate additional seating for patrons and large scenery sets. The original “first-class” opera house in St. Paul, which had been built in 1867, was not adequate to attract the best entertainers.

The new Grand Opera House was completed and ready to open by October 15, 1883. Dignitaries attended the opening performance, including Governor Lucius Hubbard, Brigadier General Alfred Terry, and Mayor Christopher O’Brien. Speeches were given by Mayor O’Brien, Colonel J. H. Davidson, and Emma Abbott. As was customary at the time, each lady in the audience received a souvenir program in a small white pasteboard box inscribed with gold letters.

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Star performer and prima donna Emma Abbott and the Grand English Opera Company performed Verdi’s Il Trovatore on opening night. Throughout the opening week they performed a different opera each night. Miss Abbott and her company honored many similar requests to perform at dedication ceremonies for opera houses across the country.

Located just behind the original opera house, the new building was 2,200 square feet. The interior was colorful, with decorations and frescoes, and there were twenty-five sets of scenery. The building was equipped with steam heating and sanitary restrooms. The stage was on the ground floor instead of the second floor (as it had been in the first opera house and in similar buildings). The main floor stage and an abundant water supply were both important safety improvements.

The original St. Paul Opera House was located on Wabasha between Third and Fourth Streets. After the new house opened, the older house was remodeled into stores and offices. By 1903, the original structure was repurposed as the Bethel Hotel, a hotel for homeless men, women, and families. With a prime downtown location, over the years the building served other purposes, including hosting plays, musical concerts, lectures, church services, and club meetings.

The Opera House had two major updates. In February 1884, 270 electric light bulbs were installed to replace the gas light fixtures. These bulbs were powered by two generators in the basement. A few years later, in August 1888, $10,000 was invested for a complete remodel of the interior. Changes were also made to comply with new fire laws.

On the morning of January 21, 1889, a fire within the building destroyed the structure beyond repair. No definite cause was determined. It may have started with the steam-heating system or electric generators in the basement; it may have been caused by sparks from crossed electrical lines. The financial loss was estimated at $100,000 with approximately $66,000 insurance coverage.

Scott made quick arrangements to continue scheduled performances at the old Market Hall theater. After a remodel, this became known as the Newmarket Theatre.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.