The Lancaster Opera House is a reminder of an early American tradition. In previous centuries, it was not unusual to combine a music hall with a town’s main governmental building. These multi-functional halls were often called “Opera Houses”, whether or not opera was, in fact, performed. The Lancaster Opera House, designed by George J. Metzger, is one of only a few such Town Hall Opera Houses left in the country.
The desire of the designer for an adaptable space is evident from the fact that the 52 by 57 foot maple auditorium floor is level, and unobstructed by balcony supports. Removable seating in the main floor can be easily cleared for dancing. The balcony is suspended by iron rods secured to massive attic timbers. The liberal use of long-leaf yellow pine in door and window frames, wainscoting, and balcony balustrade lends to the Opera House a feeling of warmth, and produces excellent acoustics.
The stage is “raked”, or sloped, similar to the stages of the Italian Renascence. The rake of ½ inch per foot makes it possible for the audience to see actors “upstage” as well as “downstage”.
The early years of Opera House were devoted to dances, recitals, and commencement exercises, as well as musicals and traveling shows. In the 1920s and 1930s, musicals and minstrel shows were presented. During the Great Depression, the hall became a center for the distribution of food and clothing to the needy. During World War II, a sewing room was set up in the dressing room beneath the stage, and parachutes were packed on the auditorium floor. Following the war, the theatre was the Civil Defense Headquarters to coordinate plan spotters and air raid drills during the 1950s and the early 60s until an underground bunker was constructed in Chestnut Ridge Park.
The restoration of the Opera House was started as a Bicentennial Project in 1975, with funding from the Town of Lancaster, State of New York, and numerous other public and private sources. When restoration began, forty seven cots, and a number of helmets were among the debris stacked on the floor of the auditorium. What had been a musty storeroom was on its way back to its turn of the century beauty. A new stairwell and elevator were built on to the East end of the Town Hall to provide handicapped access; the ceiling and walls were repaired; and four temporary rooms which had been built in the West corners of the balcony and auditorium were removed. The auditorium floor was stripped of a linoleum covering and refinished, the plaster frieze work of the proscenium arch was returned to its original state, and lighting fixtures which duplicated the original combination gas and electric fixtures were searched out and installed. St. Mary’s Elementary School in Lancaster, which was scheduled for demolition at the time, yielded wainscoting and hardware, which were used in the project.
After six years of hard work, the Opera House reopened on September 20, 1981. Once again, it is a performing arts and community center, looking as much as it did on opening night in 1897. The renovation of the basement and first floors of the Town Hall, which houses town offices, was completed in the Fall of 1987. The purchase of the present theatre seats was made possible through a grant from the east Hill Foundation. Displayed on the left side of the balcony are the original wooden balcony seats from 1897. The Opera House received a prestigious Pewter Plate award from the Landmark Society of the Niagara Frontier for outstanding renovation and operations of a historic venue.