Thursday, June 26, 2014

St. John (KS) Convention Hall & Opera House

Parade around the St. John, Kansas Square
[You can still read last week's blog about the Grand Opening of the Vernon Filley Art Museum in Pratt, KS on Sunday, June 29th from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. at the end of the current blog.  This week's blog continues the theme of  the tradition of high regard for the arts in this region.]

On November 3, 1888, Isaac B. Werner wrote in his journal:  "I off on horse back for St. John, there by noon as the U. L. [Union Labor] procession was about forming.  I hadn't time to get lunch but went into rink early for a front seat & soon the house filled & Mrs. Lease of Wichita entertaining the respectable audience for 4 hours on the political issues of the day...audience of nearly 1000 persons attending."

Isaac's journal references refer to "the rink" and "the opera house" interchangeably during this period.  Having seen The Opera House in Willa Cather's hometown of Red Cloud, NE which has been beautifully restored by the Cather Foundation, I know that opera houses did not always have sloped, fixed seating.  I assume that the structure to which Isaac referred had a flat, board floor which could hold chairs for performances or be cleared for use as a roller rink, much like the rink in the movie, "Days of Heaven."

The St. John (KS) Convention Hall
 It was in 1906 that a new brick convention hall and opera house was built in St. John.  The post card image at left is from the Yost/Leak Collection, together with the post card image below, and should be so credited.  The building was 50' x 100' and was built on land located on the northeast corner of the square which had been donated by Dr. C. C. Hoaglin.  It featured a drop curtain, an orchestra pit, and numerous dressing rooms, and traveling plays came from Kansas City and Denver to perform!  School activities and graduation exercises were also held in the building.  (The Opera House can be seen in the background of the photograph at the top of this blog.)

Post card of St. John (KS) buildings
The post card at right, also from the Yost/Leak Collection, shows the Convention Hall & Opera House in the upper right corner.  Buildings featured in previous blogs also appear on the post card, and going clockwise around the card are the 5th Avenue Hotel (See "5th Avenue Hotel," 3-14-2013 and "Postscript to 5th Avenue Hotel," 3-20-2013 in the archives), the south side of the square, the "new" water tower, the school, the mill, the 1st Baptist Church, and the courthouse (See "Isaac's Victorian Courthouse, 3-22-2012 in the archives).

The remodeled Convention Hall & Opera House

Less than three decades after it was built, the structure was remodeled to house the city offices, the fire department, and the library in 1934.  Many people felt that a landmark structure had been sacrificed in the process.  The remodeling was well in the past by the time I was a child, and I have very fond memories of the old library housed there.  The stacks were crowded and the floors uneven, and as I recall, the half-round widows were low to the floor, all combining to make that library an unusual space that fueled a child's imagination.

For others, it was the memory of the Convention Hall & Opera House that stirred their imaginations, remembering the festive occasions and glamorous theatrical productions that were once held there.  However, the older rink and opera house Isaac mentions in his journal seems to have faded from all memories today.

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