This week’s photograph shows the roofless, gutted interior of the St. Marys Opera House. Lorne Eedy took the picture in September 1987, looking down and across at the west façade of the landmark building. It looks desolate but, in fact, this is a building being rescued from the brink of demolition. The decaying interior has been removed so that something new can take its place.
Built in 1879-80 for the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, the Opera House, a monument to the prosperity of its membership, set high architectural standards. The street level had several retail outlets while the lodge rooms were on the top floor. On the second floor was the spacious auditorium complete with proscenium stage, horseshoe-shaped balcony and floor space that could be used for theatre seating or cleared for dances and gala occasions.
The Odd Fellows hoped that rentals would make this enterprise profitable. But by 1904, the building’s future already uncertain, the lodge was forced to sell at a loss. By 1907, the property was in the hands of the Carter Milling Company, later restructured as the St. Marys Milling Company under president Henry Lincoln Rice, a son-in-law of George Carter, the mill’s founder. The auditorium continued to provide entertainment and meeting space until 1919 when the milling company expanded into the opera house building, closing the theatre forever. The balcony was torn out and a new third floor was added at that level. Subsequent owners, J.G. Wolverton and Great Star Flour Mills, continued modifications. Great Star closed in 1973; the machinery was sold and removed. The empty building was purchased by a group of local investors but their ambitious plans for restoration did not materialize. By 1987, the Opera House was derelict, a roost for thousands of pigeons.
The St. Marys Lions Club came to the rescue. With local fundraising, municipal and provincial support, their ambitious $3-million redevelopment plan saved the exterior. The retail outlets on the ground level were refurbished and apartments created for the other floors. Governor General Jeanne Sauvé presided at the official opening May 30, 1989.
Today, visitors frequently ask about this building, hoping to see the old theatre. Sadly, nothing of that past glory remains. But during Doors Open St. Marys, Sept. 28, one apartment will welcome visitors and provide a feel for the historic building. For information, please see: www.doorsopenontario.on.ca/Events/St--Marys.aspx.