Wednesday, February 1, 2017

The Sterling Opera House, Birmingham

PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL: The Sterling Opera House stands on the Birmingham Town Green. The opera house was a gift of the Sterling Piano Company. It was the age of the piano, and the Sterling Piano Company was Birmingham’s largest employer. The town needed a gathering place and the piano company needed a recital hall. But the Sterling Opera House contained far more than a hall, and it played a significant role in creating the culture of the region. 

From the tower of the Sterling one can look down on the Birmingham Town Green. The Green was a gift to the town by Anson Phelps and Sheldon Smith who had founded the town of Birmingham by building a reservoir and canal along the west side of the Naugatuck River and by selling mill sites to promising entrepreneurs. It was the early 1830s, a time of growth.

Unlike hill town greens, this property was given on the condition that no animals graze on the green and with other restrictions in accord with propriety.

Smith and Phelps also gave land on three sides of the green for the construction of Episcopal, Congregational, and Methodist churches. It was a vision of how a free society might come together. The opera house was built fifty years later.

From one entrance at the corner of the building patrons purchased tickets and climbed a grand stair to the first level of the opera house.

From a different entrance at the center of the building one entered City Hall. On the streets around the green, named for the wives and daughters of Smith and Phelps there were fine fine homes and families with parlors and pianos. The problem was, neither Derby nor Birmingham were cities. The nearest city was Bridgeport. Birmingham was a borough of the town of Derby, a town that contained no cities.

Towns generally have a selectmen. Only cities have mayors.

Birmingham was a powerful community. The dam on the Housatonic was owned by Birmingham businessmen, and the profits and taxes that resulted benefitted Birmingham though they were earned from the industries in Shelton, just across the Housatonic River on the west, and from Ansonia, just across the Naugatuck River on the east.

The opera house complex has a fascinating layout in which spaces serving the opera house and those serving the city hall are woven over and under each other but rarely connect. As one descends to the back of the city hall section, one eventually comes to the small police station and the jail with three cells.

However, for most people the building's feature is not the city hall but the opera house. The grand stair that rises from the ticket window continues to two balconies with plenty of room for intermission, a time to climb to the top of the tower and look for Long Island Sound.

The hall was a place for theater and for town gatherings and it was a recital hall for concerts featuring Sterling pianos, of course. 

The Sterling piano was commended and advertised by the foremost piano virtuoso of the time, Ignacy Jan Paderewski. Paderewski retired from the concert stage after WW I to become prime minister of Poland and to represent his country at the Paris Peace Talks. It is likely he played to these benches.

The age of the piano! Virtuoso pianists were idols. There were “Monster Concerts” featuring a hundred pianos playing at once. If a well-off middle class family wanted music, they bought a piano and invested in piano lessons for their children. I have a letter written by my grandmother to my great grandfather in which she talks about her chores being done by her siblings so that she might play music for him. 

The hall was designed after principles devised by Richard Wagner for his opera house in Bayreuth, Germany, and its perfect acoustics may have helped its architect, H. Edwards Ficken, become co-architect of New York's Carnegie Hall.

John Philip Sousa stood here and rattled the walls; Houdini disappeared through the trap door in the floor boards; Bing crooned to adoring teens. before it closed after WWII.

But when I think of Sousa and his gleaming brass, I imagine them marching here on the Common that Anson Phelps and Sheldon Smith gave to the town.

Smith and Phelps had started a brass mill here, and because pianos used lots of brass parts, the largest industry in Birmingham and Shelton was pianos.


Ginnie said...

OMG, Ted. This is just fabulous! It's like a mini-book...full of what you do so well. The images, the stories, the ghosts of years long past. Mom had a Steinway all the years of my growing up. I'm not familiar with the Sterling brand (unless subliminally?). But I can just imagine how YOU now know it quite well.

Emery Roth II said...

I knew nothing of Sterling pianos until I began to learn about the opera house. Those who were trying to preserve it had done research on who played there, but absent from their research were the classical musicians who must have played there frequently. In a town that builds pianos there must have been plenty of musicians, but it was all forgotten. I specifically wondered about Paderewski, and I went looking for that info and found nothing until last year when I gave my slide-talk in a room with a Sterling piano. When I lifted the lid, there was an ad for the Sterling piano with a picture and recommendation of Paderewski.

My mother and grandmother ere both pianists and piano teachers. My mother always had a Steinway until her last one was destroyed in a fire. She replaced it with a Yamaha, but by then she had stopped playing out of frustration after her stroke. The paiano rarely was played.

Extra Insights said...

I liked the pictures you shared of The Sterling Opera House. It looks so amazing. Thanks for sharing some details about it.

Emery Roth II said...

Thank you, Extra Insights. You may also wish to visit my Facebook page.

Kevin Floberg said...

I was looking for information about the Ansonia Opera House, and found your photo of the interior in a newspaper article. Dramatic and revealing! Thanks. Nice photos of the Sterling as well. I hope Ansonia restores ours. - Kevin Floberg, Ansonia

Emery Roth II said...

Kevin Floberg, thank you for your comments. I'm not sure why I missed seeing them when posted. You may be interested in my book, "Brass Valley: The Fall of an American Industry," with extensive pictures of Anaconda American Brass in Ansonia taken when the casting shop was still pouring metal.

Rahul Sehgal said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.