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Grand Opera House, St. Paul

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Grand Opera House, St. Paul (exterior)

Black-and-white print of the exterior of St. Paul’s Grand Opera House, ca. 1885.

The St. Paul Grand Opera House, built in 1883, was considered by many to be the most beautiful opera house in the Twin Cities area. Built as a replacement for the original St. Paul Opera House, the Grand Opera House included new interior design features, electric lighting, and safety enhancements. These upgrades, along with improved railroads, made the venue a desired destination for national touring companies and faithful St. Paul audiences alike.

William F. Davidson (1825–1887), a riverboat owner and St. Paul philanthropist, was one of several developers who built entertainment venues in St. Paul in the late 1800s. Davidson’s projects included the original St. Paul Opera House in 1867 and the St. Paul Grand Opera House in 1883.

As the railroads expanded in the mid-1880s, theatrical companies began to make frequent regional tours. Opera houses opened in many towns in Minnesota and across the Midwest. St. Paul newspapers called for a larger theater to accommodate additional seating for patrons and large scenery sets. The original “first-class” opera house in St. Paul, which had been built in 1867, was not adequate to attract the best entertainers.

The new Grand Opera House was completed and ready to open by October 15, 1883. Dignitaries attended the opening performance, including Governor Lucius Hubbard, Brigadier General Alfred Terry, and Mayor Christopher O’Brien. Speeches were given by Mayor O’Brien, Colonel J. H. Davidson, and Emma Abbott. As was customary at the time, each lady in the audience received a souvenir program in a small white pasteboard box inscribed with gold letters.

Star performer and prima donna Emma Abbott and the Grand English Opera Company performed Verdi’s Il Trovatore on opening night. Throughout the opening week they performed a different opera each night. Miss Abbott and her company honored many similar requests to perform at dedication ceremonies for opera houses across the country.

Located just behind the original opera house, the new building had a seating capacity of 2,200. The interior was colorful, with decorations and frescoes, and there were twenty-five sets of scenery. The building was equipped with steam heating and sanitary restrooms. The stage was on the ground floor instead of the second floor (as it had been in the first opera house and in similar buildings). The main floor stage and an abundant water supply were both important safety improvements.

L. N. (Louis Napoleon) Scott (1858–1929) was chosen by Davidson to manage the new opera house. A young man when he started, Scott earned a reputation for dedication. Through his work as a manager and part-owner of several theaters, he was also an important part of a group of Midwest theater managers. Scott went on to manage the Metropolitan Opera House (St. Paul) and other local theaters until his death in 1929.

The original St. Paul Opera House was located on Wabasha between Third and Fourth Streets. After the new house opened, the older house was remodeled into stores and offices. By 1903, the original structure was repurposed as the Bethel Hotel, a hotel for homeless men, women, and families. With a prime downtown location, over the years the building served other purposes, including hosting plays, musical concerts, lectures, church services, and club meetings.

The Opera House had two major updates. In February 1884, 270 electric light bulbs were installed to replace the gas light fixtures. These bulbs were powered by two generators in the basement. A few years later, in August 1888, $10,000 was invested for a complete remodel of the interior. Changes were also made to comply with new fire laws.

On the morning of January 21, 1889, a fire within the building destroyed the structure beyond repair. No definite cause was determined. It may have started with the steam-heating system or electric generators in the basement; it may have been caused by sparks from crossed electrical lines. The financial loss was estimated at $100,000 with approximately $66,000 insurance coverage.

Scott made quick arrangements to continue scheduled performances at the old Market Hall theater. After a remodel, this became known as the Newmarket Theatre.

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Andrews, General C. C. History of St. Paul, Minn. Syracuse, NY: D. Mason, 1890.

Castle, Henry A. History of St. Paul and Vicinity. Chicago: Lewis Publishing, 1912.

City of Saint Paul, the Capital of Minnesota and the Commercial, Railway and Financial Metropolis of the Northwest. St. Paul: Pioneer Press Publishing, 1883. Available at the Minnesota Historical Society library as HF296.S13 A3.

DeCoster, Georgia Ray. "St. Paul's Stately Old Buildings—Going, Going, Going, Almost Gone." Ramsey County History 2, no. 1 (1965): 10–16.

“Electric Light at the Opera House.” St. Paul Daily Globe, February 19, 1884.

“Electric Light Glare.” St. Paul Daily Globe, August 19, 1888.

Elzey, John Myles. “Professional Legitimate Theatres in St. Paul, Minnesota, from 1890–1918.” PhD dissertation, 1972. Available at the Minnesota Historical Society library as PN2277.S21 E43.

“Grand Gutted.” St. Paul Pioneer Press, January 22, 1889.

Koeper, H. F. Historic St. Paul Buildings; A Report of the Historic Sites Committee, a Special Citizens Group Named by the St. Paul City Planning Board. St. Paul: St. Paul City Planning Board, 1964. Available at the Minnesota Historical Society library as F613.S7 K7.

Jensen, Andrew F. “Two Decades of Trouping in Minnesota, 1865–1885.” Minnesota History 28, no. 2 (June 1947): 97–119.

Martin, Sadie E. The Life and Professional Career of Emma Abbott. Minneapolis: Kimball Printing, 1891.

“New Bethel Hotel Opens Its Doors to Deserving Poor.” St. Paul Globe, August 14, 1903.

“An Opera House Burned.” New York Times, January 22, 1889.

“St. Paul’s Grand Opera House.” St. Paul Pioneer Press, October 14, 1883.

Wells, Jocelyn. Boosters, Hustlers, and Speculators: Entrepreneurial Culture and the Rise of Minneapolis and St. Paul, 1849–1883. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2005.

Whiting, Frank M. “A History of the Theatre in St. Paul, Minnesota, From Its Beginning to 1890.” PhD dissertation, 1941. Available at the Minnesota Historical Society library as PN2277.S21 W434.

——— . "Theater in Old St. Paul: Extravaganzas, Melodramas." Ramsey County History 5, no. 2 (Fall 1968).

——— . Minnesota Theatre: From Old Fort Snelling to the Guthrie. St. Paul: Pogo Press, 1988.

Related Images

Grand Opera House, St. Paul (exterior)
Grand Opera House, St. Paul (exterior)
William Fuson Davidson
William Fuson Davidson
Grand Opera House concert program
Grand Opera House concert program
Louis N. Scott
Louis N. Scott
Advertisement of the opening of the St. Paul Grand Opera House’s 1888 season
Advertisement of the opening of the St. Paul Grand Opera House’s 1888 season

Turning Point

Electric lighting is installed in the opera house on February 19, 1884, replacing gas lighting.



St. Paul Opera's Grand Opera House, located on Wabasha Avenue between Third and Fourth Streets, is dedicated on February 22.


The Pence Opera House in Minneapolis is dedicated in June.


William. F. Davidson asks L. N. Scott to manage the new St. Paul Grand Opera House.


The Minneapolis Grand Opera House opens on April 2.


The new St. Paul Grand Opera House opens and is dedicated on October 15.


Electric lighting is installed on February 19.


William Fuson Davidson dies.


The Grand Opera House is completely redecorated over the summer.


Fire destroys the St. Paul Grand Opera House on January 21.


On September 1, Jacob Litt opens the Jacob Litt Grand Opera House of St. Paul, located at the corner of St. Peter and Sixth Streets.