The Grand Opera House is one of Dubuque's key cultural landmarks. It was built in 1890 by a group of local businessmen who hired nationally known architect Willoughby Edbrooke, who designed the first immigration complex on Ellis Island (in New York City) the U.S. Treasury building in Washington D.C., among many others. The theater features the largest stage ever built in Dubuque and is the city's only surviving opera house. Edbrooke designed the building in the Richardsonian Romanesque style, with the front facade featuring typical elements of this style including arched windows and doorways. There were originally 1,100 seats and stage was large enough for major theatrical productions. The Grand Opera House continues to be an important musical and theatrical venue. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2002.
The Grand Opera House is the last opera house of its kind
still standing in Dubuque. Plans for the construction of the opera house were
discussed by the community as early as 1873, but construction did not begin
until 1889. Disagreements inside the community caused the delay. Initially, the
various businesspeople that were pushing for the construction of the opera
house could not agree on terms for purchasing the land that the house would be
built on. William Bradley Jr. was the individual who eventually ended up
commissioning the construction of the Opera House.
The building was designed by renowned architect Willoughby
James Edbrooke. To this day, the Grand Opera House is Edbrooke's only remaining
opera house. Edbrooke is famous for his breadth of architectural work in
similar styles to the Grand Opera House. Notably, his work on the Grand Opera
House helped land him a position as Supervising Architect of the U.S. Treasury
As it was originally constructed, the Grand Opera House was
quite lavish. The theater could seat up to 1,356 individuals. The stage reached
an impressive 39 feet in length if measured from front to back. There also was
room for an in-house orchestra. Ironically, despite the ambitious proportions
of the interior, cast members of production were not able to change costumes
inside the building itself. Costume changes took place in a smaller house that
was connected to the opera house by a tunnel.
The Grand Opera House opened on August 14, 1890. Around 800
guests came to watch a performance of the opera Carmen by composer Georges Bizet. An orchestra accompanied the
large 65-member cast. Numerous large productions and other performances would
take place here for the next several decades—it estimated that 2,600
performances occurred between 1892-1928. One notable theatrical production was Ben Hur. The large stage was able to
accommodate the lavish production, which featured live horses and elephants as
well as carriages. Many top Hollywood performers would grace the stage as well,
including Jack Benny, Will Rogers, and Henry Fonda; other notable artists and
performers included famed pianist Ignacy Jan Paderewski, the Boston Opera
Company, and the Strauss Orchestra from Vienna.
Over the years, the Grand Opera House has undergone many
renovations. At one point in the 60s, the original sandstone was covered by
aluminum and tile, as part of a larger modernization project. The building was
restored to its original state later in 1998. After being added to the National
Register of Historic Places in 2001, a glass elevator was installed to provide
increased accessibility to disabled patrons. Most recently in 2014, the
previously unusable orchestra section was restored to a usable condition thanks
to grant funding. This section had previously not been used since 1928.