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Rosenberg Treasure: The Grand 1894 Opera House

The Grand 1894 Opera House

Rosenberg Treasure of the Month

Last Updated: January 2, 2024 by Rosenberg Library | History


During the month of January, the Rosenberg Library is displaying mementos and photos from the 1894 Grand Opera House’s history.

The Grand 1894 Opera House Curtain
The Grand 1894 Opera House Curtain Rosenberg Library and Museum

Opera was a popular form of entertainment in the 19th century. Not only did going to the opera allow people to enjoy a beautiful art form, it also provided an opportunity for them to socialize with their peers. Galvestonians were no exception – Galveston has been home to multiple opera houses, including the Grand 1894 Opera House, which has stood for over 100 years.

1906 Theater Posters
1906 Theater Posters Rosenberg Library and Museum

A 19th Century Icon

The first opera house in Galveston was the Tremont Opera House, built in 1871 at the corner of Tremont and Market Streets. It was so successful that, after 24 years, Galveston needed a larger theater for its performing arts events. The manager of the Tremont, Henry Greenwall, raised $100,000 (more than $3.5 million today) to build a grand opera house in 1894. Architect Frank Cox designed the Romanesque Revival-style building that included not only the theater, but also shops, a café, and a hotel, creating an entertainment and social hub for the Galveston downtown area.

In order to be considered “grand,” an opera house was required to have a fly space above the stage, wings on either side of the stage, individual dressing rooms, an orchestra pit, stage lighting, and a box office. The appropriately named Grand 1894 Opera House contained all these features and more. At the time of its construction, it had the largest stage in Texas at 70 x 37 x 69 feet. It was also one of the first theaters to provide indoor running water for the dressing rooms, as well as both gas and electric lighting.

The Grand officially opened on January 3, 1895 with a live performance of the play The Daughters of Eve. Over the decades, many famous performers have graced the stage of the Grand, including Anna Pavlova, John Philip Sousa, Ray Charles, Willie Nelson, Liza Minelli, and James Earl Jones.

1974 State Theater Marquee
1974 State Theater Marquee Rosenberg Library and Museum

From Operas to Movies and Back Again

The Grand 1984 Opera House faced many challenges during its history. In particular, the building survived many of Galveston’s frequent hurricanes. The 1900 Storm destroyed part of the building, but it was quickly rebuilt and withstood the 1915 storm.

Though the Grand was able to weather natural disasters, the slow progress of technology proved to be more damaging. Over the decades, opera became a less popular form of entertainment with the rise of vaudeville shows and movies. In 1924, the Grand was sold to Atillio Martini, who renamed it the Martini Theatre and installed projectors and an organ to accompany silent films. Martini later renamed the theater once again to the State Theatre.

Fundraising Button
Fundraising Button Rosenberg Library and Museum

The Grand struggled as a movie house until it eventually closed in 1974 and was purchased by the Galveston County Cultural Arts Council. As the United States celebrated its Bicentennial in 1976, the Council began a fundraising initiative to restore the opera house to its former glory. As shown by the button pin in our collection, the Council appealed to people’s renewed interest in national and local history with phrases like “Even dirty old opera houses need love and cash.” The Grand was also added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1974 and was featured in a series of souvenir plates commemorating several historic buildings in Galveston in honor of the Bicentennial.

Souvenir Plate
Souvenir Plate Rosenberg Library and Museum

The Grand received overwhelming support from the Galveston community, raising over $8 million over the course of the restoration project from 1974 to 1990. In addition to restoring all the historic decorative features of the building, like the stage curtain that was originally hand-painted by Frank Cox, many modern conveniences were added, including an air conditioning and heating system, an elevator, and several apartments on what was formerly the third and fourth floors of the hotel side of the building. In recognition of the Galveston County Cultural Arts Council’s efforts and the building’s significance to the community, the Grand was named “The Official Opera House of Texas” by the 73rd Texas Legislature in 1993.

Today, the Grand 1894 Opera House continues to host a variety of shows and live performances, bringing the arts to Galveston as it has for more than a century. Notable performances from recent years include internationally recognized groups like The Beach Boys, The Oak Ridge Boys, The Temptations, The Commodores, and more, as well as local organizations like the Galveston Ballet and the Galveston Symphony Orchestra.

The Treasure of the Month is located on the library’s historic second floor near the East Entrance. It can be viewed during regular library hours, 9:00 a.m. to 5:45 p.m. Monday through Saturday and from 9:00 a.m. – 8:45 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays. For more information, please contact Ivy Albright, Museum Curator at 409.763.8854 Ext. 125 or at museum@rosenberg-library.org.

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Rosenberg Library

Rosenberg Library has offered over a century of community service to the Galveston area, and is the oldest public library in Texas in continuous operation. The building itself was dedicated on June 22, 1904, the birthday of its patron, Henry Rosenberg. The Moody Memorial Wing opened in 1971, more than doubling the floor space and allowing for a children’s library, a history center, several galleries to showcase museum collections, and later, a computer lab. The Library accepted its first museum piece shortly after it opened in 1904. Since then, thousands of rare and interesting objects from around the world have been added to the collection. Each month they display a “Treasure of the Month”. Learn more by visiting the Rosenberg Library page and the Gifts of Henry Rosenberg section.

2024-01-02T10:13:43-06:00

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This Sliding Bar can be switched on or off in theme options, and can take any widget you throw at it or even fill it with your custom HTML Code. Its perfect for grabbing the attention of your viewers. Choose between 1, 2, 3 or 4 columns, set the background color, widget divider color, activate transparency, a top border or fully disable it on desktop and mobile.