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A view of the stage from the side balcony of the old Brattleboro Opera House, which was torn down in 1953.

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Buildings saved, buildings lost

Author and urban planner Anne Satterthwaite considers the opera house in American history, and why Brattleboro tore its building down

BELLOWS FALLS—How do some historic buildings survive the wrecking ball while others get consigned to an early grave?

In the view of author and urban planner Anne Satterthwaite, it is all a matter of timing.

“People now don’t realize how powerful the post-World War II desire for modernism was,” said Satterthwaite during a recent visit to Bellows Falls to check out the Opera House and Town Hall building on The Square. “Lots of places annihilated their downtowns.”

It’s a subject Satterthwaite, who lives in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C., is quite familiar with. Her first book, “Going Shopping: Consumer Choices and Community Consequences,” was published in 2001 by Yale University Press. It looked at the rise and fall of the downtown department store and the growth of suburban shopping options that killed off many traditional retailers.

Next spring, Oxford University Press will publish Satterthwaite’s book on opera houses and their role in American life in the years between the end of the Civil War and the postwar rush to tear down the old and build up the new in the 1940s and 1950s.

In exploring the history of the American opera house, Satterthwaite said she discovered how much they were “a reflection of the culture of the time.”

There was very little interest in historic preservation in the 1950s. So, when Brattleboro’s Town Hall and Auditorium on Main Street became vacant when the municipal offices moved to the recently vacated Brattleboro High School, there was no interest in saving a century-old downtown landmark. It was demolished in 1953, and a W.T. Grant department store was built on its foundation.

Conversely, the Bellows Falls Opera House, built in 1926 to replace the original structure that was destroyed by fire, survived by virtue of being newer and still filling a need as a theater and municipal center.

It is the story of this contrast that intrigues Satterthwaite.

Grand ambitions

The Brattleboro Town Hall was built in 1855, at a cost of $15,000. Over the years, in addition to housing the various town offices, it housed the post office, the Brattleboro Library Association (forerunner to Brooks Memorial Library), the police station, and assorted other tenants such as lawyers, bookstores, and dry goods retailers.

As Brattleboro grew, its residents wanted to have a cultural focal point in the town.

In 1895, Town Meeting voters approved spending $28,000 to reconstruct the Town Hall to put a 50-foot addition onto the building, which housed a fully furnished, 875-seat opera house.

“You would have thought there would be opposition to spending that much money,” said Satterthwaite, “but there was a lot of pressure at the time for Brattleboro to create an opera house. In the years after the Civil War, when trains started going all over the country, thousands of towns built opera houses, which were typically community halls with a theater and a stage. They were important community spaces.”

Modeled after the old Abbey Theater in New York City, the Opera House saw many great theater productions in its first 30 years.

The second floor, which had a large meeting room used for lectures and other events, was also spruced up to become Festival Hall, a place for dances, exhibitions, and other events.

In the century that the building stood on Main Street, it drew luminaries from Mark Twain and Will Rogers, to Frederick Douglass and Oliver Wendell Holmes, to John Philip Sousa’s Marine Band and many off-Broadway touring companies.

“Being on the main line between New York and Montreal, Brattleboro became a popular stop for traveling troupes,” said Satterthwaite.

But movies were slowly putting the traveling troupes out of business. By 1921, the Opera House began showing films. By the early 1930s, live theater was gone and the Opera House became known as the Auditorium, a movie house that occasionally hosted live performances.

By the end of that decade, the Auditorium had some stiff competition. The Paramount Theater opened next door in 1937. The following year, the Latchis family opened its grand Art Deco theater at the south end of Main Street, and the Auditorium became the also-ran in the movie theater scene in Brattleboro.

In 1946, Town Meeting voters considered an article to come up with $250,000 to remodel the building. It was rejected. The Auditorium continued its slide into disrepair until the Board of Selectmen unanimously voted in 1952 to sell it to Boston real estate investor Saul E. Coppellman for $75,000. It was torn down the following year.

“There was not much of a stir when they decided to tear it town,” said Satterthwaite.

Why? She said a big factor was the construction of Brattleboro Union High School on Fairground Road in 1951.

“You had an up-to-date auditorium with plenty of parking. Those two things knocked out a lot of opera houses after the war. In Brattleboro, that was the turning point — that, and the pent-up demand for change and modernization.”

Trial by fire

The Bellows Falls Opera House fared much better than its neighbor due to a number of factors.

Bellows Falls High School stayed in the Village until 1971, when the new Bellows Falls Union High School campus was completed in Westminster. The Opera House was the only movie theater in the Village. And the Opera House itself was built during the rise of the movie theater, so it could adapt better to changing times.

“By the time Bellows Falls built its new high school, the preservation movement was well underway,” said Satterthwaite. “That, and the Bellows Falls Opera House being a newer building, helped it survive. But there’s more to preservation that just saving a building. You’ve got to use it too.”

After $3.7 million was spent on renovating the 550-seat Bellows Falls Opera House in 2006, it is a gleaming showplace. The stage has been restored and live acts share billing with movies. Its stage is big enough to hold the Vermont Symphony Orchestra.

The original Opera House and Town Building, built in 1887, was destroyed by fire in 1925. Its three-story red brick replacement opened a year later. Their designs are drastically different and only thing the two buildings have in common is that they have clock towers.

Dual use, and re-use

The Bellows Falls and Brattleboro opera houses also had little in common architecturally, but they did share one major design feature: they were both municipal buildings as well as performing arts centers.

Satterthwaite explained this feature was due to the lingering influence of the Puritans who first settled in New England in the 17th century.

“There was a great philosophical opposition to theater in the 18th and 19th centuries in New England, but it gradually faded away,” she said. “However, there still was enough opposition that the best way to get an opera house built was to also put town offices in it. In a way, it was the first example of public funding for the arts.”

The opera houses in New England that didn’t fall to the wrecking ball were kept alive by that dual use. Brattleboro’s might have survived had not the old Brattleboro High School become available in 1951 and offered a growing municipal government more room and parking than the old Town Hall offered.

That bad timing doomed the Opera House/Auditorium but it also was an example of something that would become commonplace by the 1970s: adaptive reuse of old buildings. Brattleboro began to preserve its old buildings instead of just plowing them down.

“The damage from urban renewal was permanent,” said Satterthwaite. “I did my graduate work at Yale in the late 1950s, when New Haven was getting more money per capita than any city in the United States for urban renewal. And the downtown was destroyed. The same thing happened in Hartford (Conn.) and Springfield (Mass.), especially when the interstate highways were being built. Thankfully, Brattleboro was spared from much of the damage.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #271 (Wednesday, September 10, 2014). This story appeared on page A1.

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