With profits from their mining ventures in Leadville, early city residents Irving Howbert, Benjamin Crowell, and J.F. Humphrey built the Colorado Springs Opera House at 18 North Tejon Street in 1881. Architect A.C. Willard modeled the interior after New York’s Madison Square Theatre. The building was red brick with black mortar, with cut sandstone adornments from Cañon City, three stories tall.
The first half of the building, adjacent to Tejon Street, had offices on the second floor, and a Masonic Lodge and banquet room on the third floor. In the 55-foot-wide ground floor were two 20-foot-wide stores on the building’s two sides, with a twelve-foot entrance in the center leading down a hallway to the lobby and theater in the back of the building. The spacious entrance was of white live oak arches.
The theater seated 800, with balcony and private boxes, and the auditorium was originally lighted with over 261 gas jets, plus a chandelier of 52 burners, all focused on a 55’x30’ stage. The building cost $80,000 and many thought it could not be surpassed west of the Mississippi.
Opening night was April 18, 1881, with a sold-out feature of “Camille,” from the Alexandre Dumas novel that also became the opera “La Traviata.” This was the largest audience to ever assemble inside any building in the city at the time. In the finale, Camille, played by Maude Granger, tragically dies, likely from tuberculosis, a fitting but troubling event given the large number of residents who came to Colorado Springs to recover from the disease.
The theater ran about 34 productions per year and included such notable entertainers as Lon Chaney and Oscar Wilde. The Opera House was also the scene of a murder and “riot” between factions of the Republican Party in 1898.
After the even more opulent Burns Theater opened in 1912, the Opera House lost its stature. It converted to a movie theater in 1919, then in 1947 the third story was removed, the front façade changed, and the building remodeled into a Woolworth store with a popular lunch counter. Woolworth closed in 1989, and after a briefly vacancy it became a night club complex, currently named the Mansions dance club that occupies the old auditorium of the Opera House.
Generously Submitted by Dr. John Harner, Professor of Geography & Environmental Studies, University of Colorado, Colorado Springs