PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: Derby's Sterling Opera House, though distinguished by the story surrounding its construction and the repute of its acoustics, is in many ways of the era. City fathers sought a dignified building to fill multiple needs in a vision of harmoniously integrated civic life, corporate life, and government stability.
In 1889 when the new Opera House opened its doors, the view from the third floor vestibule, behind the top balcony's hard pews, must have left the gents and ladies awed. At intermission there's just enough time to climb the stairs to the fourth story tower room, no higher spot in town and a full panorama. It was a place at the hub, above the original harbor where the Naugatuck found the Housatonic, where sailing ships took shelter and in times since, the source of Derby's industrial might. By 1889 there were lights at night in the city below, and people can be forgiven for thinking they saw the future.
Immediately below the window's bunting was the old town green, and it's still there, looking much as it did a hundred-and-fifty years ago. If this were a hill town, there would once have been sheep grazing there, the town's common livestock, but this was a "Valley" town planned for valley industry. The land had been a gift to the people by Sheldon Smith, the town's founder, the streets named for his daughters. Smith and Anson Phelps had also given land for building the Congregational, Methodist, and Episcopal churches there, around the Green, and the Green in the middle was deeded to the town as common land on the expressed condition that it be fenced to keep sheep and people off the grass. Whatever it actually looked like, the idea was immaculate, Yankee Americana.
Smith and Phelps were gone when the town father's added vaudeville and politics to the Green and visits by Houdini and Amelia and eventually Bing, but nobody could have foreseen Bing.
The corner door at the base of the tower led to the opera house, but the doors to Democracy were on the central axis through a Classically columned, pedimented entry beneath a deeply shadowed, pedimented roof. It's not clear if the town fathers paused to contemplate democracy before giving it form in brick and stone; the full exterior is a hash of contradictions in which observers have found Italian Renaissance, Venetian, German, and English details. How oddly the roof's pediment hugs the building's squat tower as if they were best friends who didn't really get along. The tower is topped by a Victorian, Federal, cupola confection behind a white picket fence. Such ecumenical heresies seemed unimportant. Maybe ethnic hash was the point, as old wooden democracy was rebuilt in stone to project new legacies into a new century that would stretch from crooning to hip hop.
Whatever the meaning of the architecture, whenever Sousa came to town, thrilling, chilling, exhilarating marches shook the windows and filled the town green, and the mayor and his friends had front row seats as the band played before their new town hall.
Imagine! It is entirely possible that a young Charles Ives, who would write music peppered with remembered marching bands in musical collisions, traveled south from Danbury or North from Yale to hear the March King play in Derby's fine new hall. Ives was finishing his teens and entering Yale in the 1890s, playing organ in church and experimenting with the sounds of a century nobody understood. The spirit of a time is written in its art; here, perhaps, a curious intersection.