The Grand 1894 Opera House

Opera was a popular form of entertainment in the 19th century. Not only did going to the opera allow people to enjoy a beautiful art form, it also provided an opportunity for them to socialize with their peers. Galvestonians were no exception – Galveston has been home to multiple opera houses, including the Grand 1894 Opera House, which has stood for well over 100 years.

 The Grand 1894 Opera House
Theater Posters outside the 1894 Grand Opera House, ca. 1906. FF4 #7, Street Files Photograph Collection. Rosenberg Library, Galveston, Texas.

A 19th Century Icon

The first opera house in Galveston was the Tremont Opera House, built in 1871 at the corner of Tremont and Market Streets. It was so successful that, after 24 years, Galveston needed a larger theater for its performing arts events. The manager of the Tremont, Henry Greenwall, raised $100,000 (over $3.5 million today) to build a grand opera house in 1894. The Romanesque Revival-style building was designed by architect Frank Cox, and included not only the theater, but also shops, a café, and a hotel, creating an entertainment and social hub for the Galveston downtown area.

In order to be considered “grand,” an opera house was required to have a fly space above the stage, wings on either side of the stage, individual dressing rooms, an orchestra pit, stage lighting, and a box office. The appropriately named Grand 1894 Opera House contained all these features and more. At the time of its construction, it had the largest stage in Texas at 70 x 37 x 69 ft. It was also one of the first theaters to provide running water indoors for the dressing rooms, as well as both gas and electric lighting.

The Grand officially opened on January 3, 1895 with a live performance of the play The Daughters of Eve. Over the decades, many famous performers have graced the stage of the Grand, including Anna Pavlova, John Philip Sousa, Ray Charles, Willie Nelson, Liza Minelli, the Beach Boys, and James Earl Jones.

From Operas to Movies and Back Again

The Grand 1894 Opera House faced many challenges after its initial years. In particular, the building has survived many of Galveston’s frequent hurricanes. In the 1900 Storm, part of the building was destroyed, but it was quickly rebuilt and was able to withstand the 1915 storm as well.

 The Grand 1894 Opera House
State Theater Marquee, 1974. FF4 #3, Street Files Photograph Collection. Rosenberg Library, Galveston, Texas.

Though the Grand was able to weather natural disasters, the slow progress of technology proved to be more damaging. Over the decades, opera became a less popular form of entertainment with the rise of vaudeville shows and movies. In 1924, the Grand was sold to Atillio Martini, who renamed it the Martini Theatre and installed projectors and an organ to accompany silent films. Martini later renamed the theater once again to the State Theatre.

The Grand struggled as a movie house until it eventually closed in 1974 and was purchased by the Galveston County Cultural Arts Council. As the United States celebrated its Bicentennial in 1976, the Council began a fundraising initiative to restore the opera house to its former glory. As shown by the button pin in our collection, the Council appealed to people’s renewed interest in national and local history with phrases like “Even dirty old opera houses need love and cash.” The Grand was also added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1974, and was featured in a series of souvenir plates commemorating several historic buildings in Galveston in honor of the Bicentennial.

 The Grand 1894 Opera House
Button, 76.087
 The Grand 1894 Opera House
Souvenir Plate, 76.011

The Grand received overwhelming support from the Galveston community, raising over $8 million over the course of the restoration project from 1974 to 1990. In addition to restoring all the historic decorative features of the building, like the stage curtain that was originally hand-painted by Frank Cox, many modern conveniences were added, including an air conditioning and heating system, an elevator, and several apartments on what was formerly the third and fourth floors of the hotel side of the building. In recognition of the Galveston County Cultural Arts Council’s efforts and the building’s significance to the community, the Grand was named “The Official Opera House of Texas” by the 73rd Texas Legislature in 1993.

 The Grand 1894 Opera House
The Grand Curtain of the 1894 Grand Opera House, ca. 2000. FF4 #12, Street Files Photograph Collection. Rosenberg Library, Galveston, Texas.

Today, the Grand 1894 Opera House continues to host a variety of shows and live performances, bringing the arts to Galveston as it has for over a century.

The Treasure of the Month is located on the 2nd floor of Rosenberg Library in the Grand Hallway. It can be viewed during regular library hours, 9:00 AM to 6:00 PM Monday, Friday, and Saturday and 9:00 AM - 8:00 PM Tuesday through Thursday. For museum questions, call 409.763.8854 Ext. 125 or email museum@rosenberg-library.org. For press inquiries, contact the Communications Coordinator.

Past Treasures