Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Welcome to the Sterling Opera House

NOTE:  Special thanks to Markanthony Izzo for his help in providing access to the old Sterling Opera House and for submitting to pose as the opera house phantom. Also thanks to Robert Novak for providing the background history which I have mauled for this journal entry. For a complete and accurate account of the valley schism, I recommend his article on the subject: http://derbyhistorical.org/Derby%20Division.htm

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: It is 1889. One has only to step inside the vestibule of Birmingham's new Sterling Opera House to feel how aspirations have swelled since 1870 when Ansonia's Opera House was built. Some say the Sterling is unconscionably extravagant, the product of overweening pride. 

Others say it is civic pride, and lay claim to a kind of vision. They tell us Sterling Hall is a tribute to the memory of an esteemed citizen, the late Charles A. Sterling, and it is a natural partnership between the people of Birmingham and the Sterling Piano Company, a major Birmingham employer which has put up a good part of the money. The results speak, or rather, sing for themselves. The hall is acoustically perfect. It has been built following principles developed personally by Richard Wagner and his architects at the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth, Germany. They say that in one step the hall is making Birmingham the cultural center of the whole Northeast. 

With a hall even better than Mr. Steinway's, on 14th Street in New York City, the greatest artists of the day are flocking to Birmingham. The Birmingham town fathers assert Birmingham's new status demanded the upgrades to public infrastructure and the town green that were recently made. The people of Birmingham, including many who run mills in Birmingham and across the Housatonic River in the newly incorporated borough of Shelton, envision a united Derby with the shining town green on the hill as its cultural center. When that happens, all Derby will benefit.

Across the river in the heavily populated hillsides of Ansonia, people are not so sure. They grumble, what good is an opera house where you can't skate? Our Opera House was designed for practical people and it is as good as it ever was except for the shows lost to the Sterling. It still earns investors a tidy profit. Common sense has made Ansonia the economic center of Derby. Will Ansonia ultimately pay for all the Birmingham frills when the debts come due in Derby township?  Mostly, however,  people are galled by the bombshell that dropped from the front page of The Transcript on the day after Christmas: Birmingham, it announced, is petitioning to become the City of Derby with Ansonia and Shelton made boroughs thereof. No one saw it coming.

People in Ansonia are shocked at the swollen arrogance of it all; in Shelton they are stunned.  Shelton has always been part of the town of Huntington, not the town of Derby.  Of course, all the land in Shelton is owned by the Ousatonic Water Company of Birmingham which built and runs the dam on the Housatonic River. They take the profits of the Shelton Mills, and, since the owners live in Birmingham, Derby is where the taxes get paid. Everyone in Shelton has known that the power company and their slick lawyers have always done as they pleased there with little opposition from the rural, hillside farmers who run the town of Huntington of which Shelton is a borough. 

In Shelton now they are contemplating all the mills on their side of the river and their outstanding record of growth, while making snide comments about the wisdom of Shelton annexing Birmingham some time soon when Shelton becomes a city.

It was a classically tumultuous year, 1889 and in the decades that followed. There were many parties of interest to the doings in the lower valley, and the whole region was soon embroiled. What you thought probably depended on where you lived. The Evening Transcript supported the Derby plan and editorialized, “United in one community we would soon advance to the front rank among the prominent and progressive towns of the State.”  The Sentinel opposed it and supported Ansonia's own petition for separation from Derby and incorporation as an independent town, unshackled from Birmingham's debt. Wherever you lived, you were entitled to claim moral indignation and outrage against the other side with certainty that high ethical principles were at stake. 

Of course there are also those who believed that it was always just about ego, greed and lust for power, and there are those who look back and wonder if it mattered much after all.   Up and down the valley town streets were being paved and lighted and new trolleys took a growing leisure class to places that had not existed a few years beforeWhatever you believe, one feels the aspirations of the age inside this hall. The opera house is no longer for skating.