Woonsocket Opera House - Park Theatre, Woonsocket Rhode Island

Date added: June 23, 2022 Categories: Rhode Island Theater

When built, the Woonsocket Opera House was the largest theatre in Rhode Island. It was the center of the theatrical, and later of motion picture entertainment in northern Rhode Island for a quarter century. It is the only "legitimate" theatre ever built in the area. It was the sole remaining large nineteenth century theatre in the state, the Woonsocket Opera House had particular social and architectural significance.

In the second half of the nineteenth century Woonsocket was a prosperous manufacturing city, a center for the cotton, woolen and later the rubber industries. It was a city of factory workers and tradesmen. This is the audience the Woonsocket Opera House was built to serve.

Touring company melodramas were its stock in trade in the pre-television, pre-cinema age. The opening night in September, 1888 featured Maude Banks in "Ingomar, the Barbarian". Throughout its history, the Woonsocket Opera House catered to popular audiences. When traveling repertory companies began to disappear, the Opera House, re-christened the Park Theatre, started showing motion pictures. It remained a movie house from 1915 to 1942. In the latter year a local industrialist and theatre buff, Arthur I. Darman, who owned the Stadium Theatre not far away, redecorated the Park and opened it as a a vaudeville theatre. Mr. Darmon lost money on the venture and sold the old opera house in 1945. It reverted to use as a movie theatre, staying open until 1963. The Woonsocket Opera House never reopened. Television, suburbanization and the development of out-lying shopping centers under cut its economic base, the fate of so many downtown theatres across the country.

The Opera House was erected by twelve local business men who formed the Woonsocket Opera House Company in 1887. They viewed the endeavor as a civic improvement as well as an investment. Willard Kent, architect of the theatre, was secretary of the corporation. Kent (1851- 1924) was primarily a civil engineer. He was the first superintendent of the Woonsocket water works. As master in chancery he was in charge of distributing water to Woonsocket's textile mills. Later Kent designed water systems for towns in southern Rhode Island and the Burrillville-Providence trolly line. Aside from the Opera House, his only recorded architectural work was at Narragansett Pier where he was architect for at least two cottages on Ocean Drive and of the Narragansett Pier Grammar School. Willard Kent maintained offices in both Narragansett and Woonsocket. He advertised his services in the Woonsocket directories from the late 1870's through the 1920's as "Architecture, Engineering, Surveying and Draughting.

Horace A. Jenckes, builder of the Opera House, was a director of the Woonsocket Opera House Company. Mr. Jenckes (1841-1889) was the son of an early Woonsocket industrialist, Job Jenckes. He entered the construction business in 1874 and his activities closely parallel those of Willard Kent, for he built the Woonsocket water works and the Woonsocket trolley system. Horace Jenckes was a prominent Republican politician, active in party activities at the local, state and national levels. In short, he was one of Woonsocket's most prominent citizens.

The Opera House exemplifies several trends in late nineteenth century design. The stolid North Main Street facade, with its dark brick-work, brown stone trim, round arched and narrow slit-like windows relates directly to the robust Romanesque Revival style developed by H. H. Richardson of Boston. Though the delicacy and richness which characterized the interior are gone, the auditorium still illustrates the salient planning criteria found in major Victorian theatres: good acoustics, an ample stage, and an air of intimacy coupled with a large seating capacity.

Building Description

The Woonsocket Opera House, long known as the Park Theatre, was designed by Willard Kent and opened in 1888, This brick structure is 70 feet wide and 170 feet deep. The exterior, with the exception of the North Main Street facade, is unadorned, the walls subdivided into bays by projected piers, the wall surface punctured by numerous circular and hemispherical window openings (now bricked up), by a freight door and several emergency exits. The exterior reveals that the Opera House is a union of three distinct units: an office and hotel block fronting North Main Street which contains the theatre entrance; the auditorium, its roof capped with a domed vent necessitated by gas illumination; and the stage.

The Romanesque Revival style brick and brown stone facade of the Woonsocket Opera House is subdivided into three bays. The central bay is narrow and slightly projected. Projected corner piers terminate the flanking bays. Originally the first floor of each flanking bay was opened by a round arch 38 feet wide and 20 feet high. This articulation is masked by a "moderne" tile facing and movie marquee added in 1942. At the second floor level of the flanking bays two round arched windows surmount what was the single arch of the first floor. On the third floor are four round arched windows, and on the fourth floor level six slit-like windows grouped in triads. All the windows have continuous sills in brownstone supported on series of corbeled string courses. A stepped parapet above a "castellated" cornice completes the facade. The name "Woonsocket Opera House" and the date "1888" are worked into the brick and stone work of the cornice. The principle ornament of the facade is a large brown stone roundel set into the central bay at the third floor level on which is carved the monogram of the Woonsocket Opera House Company.

The Opera House lobby and auditorium have been completely altered in decor, but not in plan. The lobby is rather small, a short corridor leading to the balcony staircases at either end. The parquet or orchestra section of the auditorium is 56 x 59 feet and has a seating capacity of 600. The balcony seats 300 and the gallery, or second balcony 600. Though the theatre can hold 1500 patrons, the depth of the auditorium is little greater than the depth of the stage. As a result the Opera House is a surprisingly intimate theatre. Both balcony and gallery are supported on six slender iron columns. Until the alterations of 1942, three tiers of balconies flanked the stage. The interior of the theatre was decorated sumptuously in what was termed the "Renaissance style". The ceiling, frescoed with floral decorations and the "ideal of 'music'" on the proscenium, were executed by Harry C. Aiken of Boston. The balcony and box fronts were painted white and gold and finished with crimson plush. The lobby was said to be in the "Flemish style of art, the ground of the walls being old gold, with figures in black." None of the original interior decoration remains. Paneling installed in 1942 with rounded corners and sleek finish covers the walls of the lobby and stairs. The ceilings of the auditorium are painted simple flat colors, the walls are papered and the balcony and gallery fronts sheathed with velvet. The boxes were closed in and covered over with velvet painted with "art deco" designs. The proscenium is also upholstered with velvet.

The high rectangular proscenium opens onto a stage 65 feet wide and 54 feet deep. The rigging loft above it rises 64 feet. When the Opera House was built the stage was fitted out with a set of scenery by Sosman and Landis of Chicago. Several scenery drops survive. Charles S. King, a noted stage carpenter, designed the rigging and lighting systems. The stage was also refitted in 1942 and the dressing room facilities below stage improved.

Because the theatre had been abandoned for a decade, the depredations of neglect and vandals had taken their toll. Windows are broken, many fixtures broken, and the mechanical systems were in disrepair.

Hopes of restoring the theater were lost when on September 22nd, 1975 the building was destroyed by a fire.