Next book signing and SLIDE-TALK on
"Brass Valley: The Fall of an American Industry"
August 21at 10:30 AM at the Jewish Community Center in Sherman
PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL: Main Street in Ansonia passes below these slender windows, but few who go there suspect this silent space is above or remember the stories it contains. It's a relic of its time, silent but for pigeons - except for those with the ears to hear more and the imagination to remember. Recently, the windows on Main Street were boarded up, so now the space is dark as well as silent, and no more pictures will be made. However, when seen, it still looks much as it did in 1870 when it was built. It is a treasure waiting to be discovered and find new life as a gallery or maybe a historical museum to preserve something of the historic mills now being demolished nearby. It might even make a fine exercise club while preserving intact its historic character.
I’m not from town, and I’ll never know it as locals do, but inside and out, the opera house speaks of the decade after the Civil War had boosted manufacturing throughout Brass Valley. Factories increased production to turn out cannons and bullet shells for the war and swelled mill towns throughout New England. In 1870 business leaders of the Borough of Ansonia, not yet a city, decided that Ansonia needed a large, multipurpose meeting space. Twenty-five years earlier there had been no Ansonia. Suddenly the borough was filled with mills and workers and new families and civic groups and associations and events.
A large meeting and function space was needed. It would also be a place for wholesome entertainment the whole family could enjoy; a place for performers to stop along their circuit: minstrels and medicine shows and opera stars on tour. A place they can play to paying crowds - not a theater for lowlifes but a cultural institution for the arts, an Opera House! It would be Connecticut’s first opera house. Imagine Ansonia, a cultural center. A place for Jenny Lind to visit should she make another tour. Did Tom Thumb ever play here?
By the 1870s the men who had pioneered the brass and copper industry in the 1830s, and 40s were becoming elderly and could look around them at towns they had built. Up and down the valley they sought to burnish their legacy with public buildings and infrastructure that would last. What better investment than an opera house, a place to keep idle workers occupied and out of trouble? Not a music hall or a theater that would provoke rowdies, but an Opera House to give the community culture.
For this project the business leaders hired an up and coming architect. Robert Wakeman Hill. He would go on to design civic buildings and monuments all over the state for which he is justly remembered. He gave the business leaders an opera house with a row of shops along Main Street between the bridge and the mills which Almon Farrel and Anson Phelps had built. The Opera House is a building to fall in love with. In the center, a grand stairway still ascends under crimson carpeting to a second-floor promenade (less-than-grand) past suites of offices boasting the town's most distinguished address, and leading at the end to the more-nearly grand stair that folds back on itself as it reaches up to the third floor grand hall and the grand proscenium arch, both aged to the color of bone. There is no backstage, no fly-space. The floor was level and the seats folded so the floor could be used for roller skating and other indoor activities when needed. It’s unclear when basketball hoops were added. There are still footlights in place.
The Opera House maintained most of its prominence until the labor riots of 1919, though it lost some of its luster when a real concert hall was built in nearby Birmingham. After the 1919 riots a larger and even more multipurpose space was needed, and the armory was built on the hill above the factories with facilities for large functions and others to house troops, if needed. By then trolleys took people everywhere, and people in Ansonia could easily travel to New Haven for entertainment.
Even then, there were countless town meetings and functions, organizations and committees to keep the Opera House busy. Annually high school seniors took their diplomas there and it became part of their lives. In this manner the Ansonia Opera House continued to serve the community and profit investors through World War II. It’s been silent now for well over half a century, and now it has gone dark as well. What might it become?