According to Gateway Wilmington, the city’s Convention & Visitors Bureau’s official publication, “…more than 60 percent of the Fortune 500 companies are incorporated in Delaware.” As a result, its downtown appears far larger than would be expected for a city of slightly more than 70,000 people. The downtown Hotel du Pont is second to none, and downtown itself is equal parts sleek, glass-enclosed office buildings and blocks that cry out for urban renewal. Caught between the extremes that characterize many U.S. urban centers is an architectural treasure–Grand Opera House.
Four years after The Civil War ended, Wilmington’s Masons, that is members of the Delaware Lodge of Ancient Free and Accepted Masons, saw a need for a first-class theater and Masonic Lodge in a city that showed potential to become a major port and rail center. That didn’t happen but the theater was built at 818 North Market Street and appropriately named Grand. It sported a white, 4-story cast iron facade that looked like marble but was paint. A 75% scale model of the Paris Opera House, it was quite a downtown landmark, a “splendid new ornament” that opened in 1871.
Over time its melodramas and comic operas were replaced by vaudeville and burlesque. Then the Warner Brothers leased it to show westerns and horror films. By the late 1960s Grand Opera House was a candidate for either renewal or removal.
Several local groups saw its faded glory and decided on renewal. Its 1,400 seats were cut to about 1,200, red and gold replaced green, and lighting fixtures again resembled 19th century gas-lit beauties. By 1972 GOH was on the National Register of Historic Places. The next year the Masons signed off on ownership. The complete restoration was done in 1976.
Today Grand Opera House offers an eclectic entertainment mix–Wanda Sykes to symphony, Clint Black to ballet, Lily Tomlin to Il Trovatore, etc. Audiences rave about the acoustics and the atmosphere. Even if you don’t make it to a performance like Hank and Ruth who were there in off-season, you can take a free guided tour (302 658 7897), step into the 19th century, and see a grand restoration.