Artscape: Restoring Newport's Historic Opera House

Jun 27, 2013

The city of Newport is known for many things, among them, its thriving tourist industry, and its dedication to historic preservation.

The renovation of the historic Opera House Theater is a meeting of both these worlds.

While the project started strong in the early 2000’s, the economic downturn saw funding for the project drying up.

Now thanks to a recent grant, the Opera House is gearing up to finally see the project completed.

For this month’s Rhode Island Artscape, looking at this lengthy renovation as it gets its second wind.

Visitors gather to see the Opera House Theater stage, which had been hidden for more than thirty years.
Credit John Bender / RIPR

After being in use for more than 140 years, The Opera House Theater in the heart of downtown Newport sits dark, but that may soon be changing.

In the 2000’s the theater was showing movies, but it was also showing signs of its age.  The historic building was facing potential demolition when the Newport Performing Arts Center saved it; buying the Opera House in 2002.

The group wanted the theater returned to its former glory as a center for live events.

So they raised the funds to fix some structural problems and restore the brick façade in 2004, but since then they haven’t been able to find the money to really renovate.

That is, until they got a recently got a grant to make a dent in what will be a lengthy project.

The theater was built in the late 1860’s by New England railroad man, Patrick C. Shanahan.  He was originally from Maine, but settled in Newport, buying up properties including a hotel in Washington Square.  He would build his theater next door.

The inaugural show at the Opera House was on December 28th 1867.  The show: the play Lucretia Borgia, by Victor Hugo, who was still alive at the time.

But after its highbrow opening, for the next 67 years the theater would show, well, anything.

“Captain Somebody and His Talking Horses, and jugglers and magicians and Caruso, and I don’t know if that was predictable or not but it seemed very, catch as catch can.”

Said Dominique Alfandre, a historian and a member of the Opera House Board of Directors.

She said that really, the variety was good, it attracted paying customers.

“It wasn’t like a venerable Broadway house kind of thing. It didn’t have Eugene O’Neill productions or something like that.  It was vaudeville and it was entertainment, and there were a lot of theaters in Newport at the time, because that’s what people did, they went out to the theater.”

But then in 1929, Hollywood happened. 

“As everybody knows, Vaudeville died when the movies came in, and they turned many many theaters into movie palaces.  Vaudeville houses turned into movie houses, and that’s what they did to this theater. And they just gutted this whole thing, and unfortunately we don’t have any pictures of the interior before they gutted it,” said Alfandre.

But they have made some educated guesses.  The 1929 stage may have been slimmer, and there may have been a second balcony.  According to Alfandre, the theater held a lot more people than it would today.

“This seated 1100 people, now we’re going to get this to seat 700 people, and that’s really cramming seats in.  You know they didn’t have to have any handicapped access, they were smaller, slimmer people then.  They probably didn’t expect as much from the theater in terms of comfort.”

All the seats were changed in 1979 however, when the grand 20’s movie palace was turned into a multi-plex, with three screens.

The theater continued to show movies after it was bought by the Newport Performing Arts Center.  But after some serious flooding it was clear the theater would need to be shut down in 2010, and major restorations would be needed. 

Right in the middle of the recession.

Board member Liz Drayton, said despite the poor economy, they haven’t given up.

“It’s an ongoing process, I mean we’ve been working for the last five years on this project.  It isn’t that we just decided now to move forward with it.”

But as the money dried up, they had to scale back.  Again, Liz Drayton.

“We could have thrown in the towel then, but we said you know what it’s time for us to regroup, rethink about what we’re doing.”

So in 2011 they won a grant, and used that money to remove the walls and drop ceilings dividing the theater into separate cinemas. They also removed the screens, the film projectors, and a couple popcorn machines, and uncovered the architecture and detailed 1929 plasterwork that had been hidden.

Board member and historian Dominique Alfandre said there’s still a lot of that beauty that the public will have yet to see.

“A lot of the gorgeousness that one would expect from an 1867 building in Newport is going to have to wait because the important thing is to have the building open, and have performances going on.”

And when it is safe and workable, the theater will open, not necessarily when it is beautiful. All those crumbly plaster details won’t be meticulously restored just yet.  But Alfandre doesn’t seem to mind too much.

“I would like to keep it as much of a ruin as we can just to emphasize to people that this is a work in progress, and that we still need their help even though the theater is open,”

And when it does open, it won’t be the only show in town.  The Sanford White Casino Theater also built in the 1800’s was renovated a few years ago and sits just a few streets away.

And three doors up the street from the Opera House sits the Jane Pickens Theater built in 1834, which is undergoing some renovations of its own.  It’s started fundraising to expand their offerings, as the theater now shows mostly only movies.

Despite close quarters, Cathy Staab, the director of the Jane Pickens Theater believes the two theaters will be able to collaborate.

“We’ll work together. Their goal is much more the performing arts, and our goal is to be a community center and a center for film. But film can be a lot of fun when you mix it with live music.  We’re looking for flexibility; they’re looking to bring a whole new performing arts business perhaps to town,” said Staab.

But with so many entertainment options already in Newport , does the city really need another venue downtown?  Jodi Sullivan of the Newport County Chamber of Commerce believes that the new theater will change Newport’s economic landscape.

“I think that people are realizing that when you have a vibrant artist community, it can be an economic driver, and sure there’s a lot of other opportunities for live theater, but not on Aquidneck island, and not so much in Newport County.”

Of course all of this hinges on the actual opening of the theater. The Newport Performing Arts Center group has been working for the better part of ten years on this project, but they hope an end is in sight said Board member Dominique Alfandre.

“The construction goal is a year and a half.  And the goal-goal, because it would be the 150th anniversary of the theater, is to open in 2017.”

They still have millions to go, before that dream can become a reality, but as they say, the show must go on.