I have to admit that the landmark building, which at one time dominated the corner of Ave. A and Oak street; is probably my favorite public building that has been built in Palestine, and that's saying a lot! Like the Flatiron Building in Manhattan, the behemoth of a building that was the Temple Opera House commanded dramatic attention. It was built by the Free and Accepted Masons of Lodge number 31 of Palestine as their new masonic temple. The cornerstone was laid by Dr. Henry J. Hunter, the deputy Grand Marshal, on Aug. 29,1878. At a cost of $13,000 the building was, at its time of completion, the largest and most architecturally designed structure in Palestine.
The architects were Nicholas J. Clayton and M. L. Lynch. Orville Grove, a civil engineer with the I&GN Railroad, acted as consulting engineer. The building would be the first of architect Nichols J. Clayton's commissions in Palestine. Like similar works in Galveston, Clayton's expert use in brick and stone would turn a public building into a commanding architectural focal point of Ave A. Clayton made a hybrid of the Victorian and Gothic style; Victorian Gothic a style he would use in his designing of the Sacred Heart Catholic Church years later. Clayton made excellent use of the land the building was built on. The result was a unique 3-story triangular shaped structure. The front of the building was dominated by a pair of round turrets with spires sporting pattern tile roofs and tall finials. To give you a sense of scale, the opera house was roughly 80 feet tall, the building that now sits on the site is no more than 30 feet in height.
When the Free Masons took possession of the building, the 1st floor was divided into three spaces used for retail, the 2nd floor was devoted to the use as an opera house with the stage located on the front wall of the building and the auditorium also sported a single balcony, the 3rd floor of the building was used as a meeting hall by the Masons. By 1907, The Mason's found the huge building to costly to maintain and began renting the top floor of the Colley-Wright building. W. E. Swift bought the building that same year for $15,000. Mr. Swift, having the financial means to acquire such a grand building, proceeded to remodel the interior devoting it entirely as an opera house. Among the changes, Swift opened up the interior by removing the floor separating the 2nd and 3rd floors allowing for the addition of two horseshoe shaped balconies. The stage was moved from the East end of the building to the West and four private box seats, two on either side of the stage were added. Mr. Swift also added a lobby, ladies parlor, and a gentleman’s smoking room. The changes were grand to say the least and Palestine finally had an opera house worthy of its stature as a economic and social center.
If your wondering about the price of a show, private boxes and the dress circle $5, first row balcony $5.00, remaining balcony seating $2.50, and gallery $1. The newspaper of Aug. 15, 1907 declared that it was “an ideal day for opening the new theater,” stores were to close early “so all could attend”. The newspaper declared “this will be the biggest theatrical event in the history of Palestine, let us all be there and show that Palestine is awake and appreciates its new opera house.” W.E. Swift announced the opening of the new Temple Opera House on “Red Feather” Friday, Nov. 15, 1907. A big musical comedy, 60 people in the cast, with two car loads of scenery came on a special train from Little Rock Arkansas. The newspaper stated that by 8:30 p.m. an audience composed of the city's best people had gathered to witness the dedication of the new opera house. The decorators had not yet finished their work making the opera house rich and ornamental, the stage which was one of the largest in the state was equipped with the latest appliances known to the modern stage. To the right of the lobby was a large and roomy ladies parlor and nearby a smoking room for the men. The drop curtain was a hand painted representation of the chariot race from Ben Hur, vibrant and colorful it must have been an amazing sight. In August of 1928, with changing tastes, the Grand Old Dame that was the Temple Opera House closed its doors. No more would it be home to the theatrical arts in Palestine nor would it host Graduation ceremonies for Palestine High School, and with it's closing the New Year Eve Opera Ball would come to an end.
By the 1930s, the top floor of the opera house was removed.
Architect Theo Maffit oversaw the remodel, the brick exterior was stuccoed and terra cotta tile roof now replaced the once towering spires, The building now found use as an automotive dealership; the former stage was used to display Buicks.
What had been the home to so many theatrical shows, hosting such famous actors as Edwin Booth (John Wilkes Booth's brother), Richard Keene, and Edwin Rostell. The building that had hosted countless charity events, formal balls, and high school graduations was finally demolished in 1962, one of the many victims of what was thought of as “progress.” It is only today that we realize what a treasure these buildings and homes are to Palestine. They are a visual representation of who we are as a city and a community.
Palestine is today a Texas Main Street community, it’s also a Preserve America City; realizing what a wealth of history that we have in our town, we can ensure that landmarks like the Temple Opera House will no longer be demolished, but revitalized and preserved for the generations to come.