Masonic Hall and Grand Theater (Modern: The Grand or The Grand Opera House)
Backstory and Context
Wilmington's Masonic Hall and Grand Theater stands as one of the finest remaining examples of American, nineteenth-century, cast iron architecture and enjoys ties to numerous historical events in Delaware. The Masonic Hall opened in 1871 as a home for the Grand Lodge of the Masons. However, with its stage, reputed to be the nation's second largest, the theater evolved into the area's home to a wide range of lauded live performances and events. Today, the theater proceeds to serve Wilmington as a major source of live entertainment and events (although the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020-2021 has created a notable interruption to its schedule).
Masonic Hall and Grand Theater hosted some of the most prominent theater groups, operas, musical performances, and stars of American Theater. The site also hosted meetings conducted by local Masonic Lodges, conventions, lectures, and political events. President Ulysses S. Grant attended a "fair" held in the opera house under the auspices of Company A, First Delaware State Volunteers, on February 6, 1873. In 1889 Lieutenant (later Admiral) Robert E. Peary spoke in the opera house about the Arctic region and his search for the North Pole. The Grand also hosted State Republican and Democratic conventions. Meanwhile, the Grand hosted its first motion picture event on February 8, 1897. By 1906, movies became the dominant form of entertainment and by 1914 had wholly replaced live performances at the Grand. Regardless of the type of entertainment or event, the Grand stood as Wilmington's cultural epicenter for several decades.
Warner Brothers took over management from 1930 to 1967. After Warner Brothers left, the theater remained largely closed for four years, minus weekend movies. But, in 1971, the Grand reopened as the home to classical music, produced mainly by the Delaware Symphony Orchestra, Opera Delaware, and the First State Ballet Theatre. Renovations during the 1970s also helped restore the theater to its original beauty, and modern touches allowed it to continue to thrive into the twenty-first century, where it hosts a wide range of shows and events. Indeed, the Grand's official website notes in 2020, "The Grand presents more than 80 shows each season...the building hosts more than 300 events a year, bringing more than 120,000 people into downtown Wilmington and through its doors." (However, the global pandemic of 2020 and 2021 has forced most performances to cancel.)
Though its purpose has changed at times, as has the broader entertainment industry, its beautiful architecture remains as striking today as it was in 1871. Delaware architect Thomas Dixon designed the structure in the Second Empire style with a distinguished cast iron façade adorned with Masonic images. So, while the theater goes by the name "Grand Opera House" or "The Grand," the architecture speaks to its 1871 history tied to the Masonic Lodge. And, its interior speaks to the countless events and performances it has hosted for 150 years.
Maynard, W. Barksdale. "Grand Opera House." Society of Architectural Historians. SAH Archipedia. Accessed February 4, 2021. https://sah-archipedia.org/buildings/DE-01-WL24
Stoddard, Robert Dick Jr. "Nomination Form: The Masonic Hall and Grand Theater." National Register of Historic Places." nps.gov. December 11, 1972. https://npgallery.nps.gov/GetAsset/5525ae31-bfe6-41f4-ab71-bce98efe7728.
"The Grand." Accessed February 4, 2021. https://www.thegrandwilmington.org/.
By McGhiever - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=62381199
From Visit Delaware. https://www.visitdelaware.com/listings/grand-opera-house/222/
WDEL Newsradio in Wilmington. https://www.wdel.com/news/the-grand-cuts-over-half-its-staff-as-covid-19-touring-concerns-continue/article_7cd66932-caff-11ea-a4ff-cf79c051c018.html