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The history 

 

OUT OF THE ASHES…

Tucker County, West Virginia, was settled surprisingly late in the country’s history. Because of its high elevation and mountainous terrain, the region remained “frontier” territory until late in the nineteenth century. At that point, booming industry—timber and coal—attracted more settlers, and the City of Thomas was incorporated in 1892. Almost immediately, an opera house became the center of community and cultural life.

Tragically, on the night of November 12, 1901, a devastating fire swept through Thomas, destroying the wooden opera house and eighty-two other buildings in the city’s riverfront commercial district. 

Hiram Cottrill, a former mine superintendent whose saloon had also been engulfed by the fire, resolved to build a new opera house—forgoing its predecessor’s wooden construction in favor of fire-resistant brick.

The original opera house in Thomas, West Virginia, built in 1894. The structure was destroyed by fire in 1901.

East Avenue (Front Street) in Thomas, West Virginia, circa 1906. The Opera House is visible at the end of the street (look for the painted “Cottrill’s Saloon” sign).

Postcard photograph of Cottrill’s Opera House, circa 1909. Note the three arched windows and the circular brick panels.

A NEW START.

Cottrill hired the architectural firm of Homboe & R.C. Lafferty (Clarksburg, West Virginia) to design his new opera house. (The same firm designed the Miners and Merchants Bank, located further south on Front Street).

The Opera House’s architectural style is sometimes referred to as “Renaissance Revival.” The building’s two-story arched window openings and three-course brick quoins are somewhat reminiscent of a Renaissance-era Italian palace. The rectangular structure was built with red brick, laid in a common bond pattern. Other interesting exterior details include the circular brick panels on either side of the third level.

Less is known about the Opera House’s interior; very few early photographs have survived. The auditorium was built in three levels: orchestra-level seating, a second-level balcony, and “peanut heaven”—the cheapest seats in the upper balcony. The lower balcony was suspended from the ceiling (rather than being supported from underneath), ensuring good sight lines on the first level. In terms of finishings, one early Thomas resident recalls “wine-colored velvet curtains,” “plush carpet,” and ceilings “decorated with pressed tin.” Another remembers an impressive chandelier with upwards of one hundred light bulbs.¹

In 1902, Cottrill’s Opera House opened to the public.    

THE HEYDAY.

The term “opera house” is a misnomer, since Cottrill built his theater not for opera but for vaudeville. These touring minstrel shows were extremely popular at the time; there were nearly 500 vaudeville houses scattered throughout Appalachia.

Calling the establishment an “opera house” may also have helped to deflect concerns about vaudeville’s risqué reputation. Shows could be raucous and profane, and women and children were barred from attending the most unseemly performances. Eventually, the venue posted signs warning that performers swearing onstage would be permanently banned.

Among the performers believed to have graced the Thomas stage were Jack Benny, George Burns and Gracie Allen. Cottrill may have offered free admission to many of these shows, eager to attract customers to his lucrative first floor saloon. In addition to vaudeville acts, Cottrill’s Opera House featured other forms of live entertainment, including concerts, recitals, theater productions, and dramatic readings.

The Opera House also served as a community center in those early days. The venue hosted dances, wedding receptions, and political meetings. Residents of nearby towns, along with workers from the nearby coal and lumber camps, would take the train to Thomas and spend the evening at the Opera House, enjoying the night’s entertainment.

Photo of a performance from the Opera House’s earliest days.

Photo of a performance from the Opera House’s earliest days.

Front Street in Thomas, ca. 1914. Note the clear-cut hillside behind Thomas and the rail line on the riverfront. This photo was taken just before Hiram Cottrill sold the building to the Sutton family (see below).

A artifact from the Sutton Theater.

A artifact from the Sutton Theater.

Local residents outside Sutton Theater in Thomas. Note the marquee in the background (the marquee has been placed into storage for potential future restoration and reuse).

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A NEW ERA OF ENTERTAINMENT.

In the summer of 1914, prohibition arrived in West Virginia with the Yost Law. Cottrill was forced to close his saloon, eliminating the Opera House’s primary source of revenue.

The next year, Cottrill sold his building to the Sutton family; Cottrill’s Opera House became the Sutton Theater. Other changes followed; the programming quickly shifted from live entertainment to motion pictures. Darkening curtains and sound-muffling materials were added to the auditorium. A raked floor (each row of seats slightly higher than the row in front) was installed. A projection booth was added to the third-floor balcony.

Still, despite this transformation, the building remained a fixture of the community. In an era before television, video games, and the internet, motion pictures were the center of cultural life.

As with the passenger trains of yesteryear, buses carried in audiences from the nearby villages, including Kempton, Pierce, and Benbush. One local resident remembers lines of theatergoers, all eager to see the latest adventures of Tom Mix or the Lone Ranger.¹

saving cottrill’s opera house.

Over the decades, industry slowed and Thomas’ population declined. In 1963, the Suttons sold the theater to Ralph and Betty Stuart (who had previously owned the opera house in Parsons). Faced with dwindling audience numbers and competition from television, the new owners were ultimately forced to close the theater in 1972. The local Catholic church, St. Thomas Aquinas, operated the theater as a community service until 1977, when the building finally went dark. Local groups would occasionally use the building for live theater, but even these sporadic productions grew less frequent as time went on.

As happens with many shuttered buildings, the Opera House slowly began to deteriorate. Water infiltrated the building, damaging bricks, mortar, and beams—and filling the basement. At one point, massive icicles formed inside the building, the result of subfreezing interior temperatures and a leaky roof.

Fortunately, concerned local citizens took action. In 1978, Betty Stuart, the buildings’s last commercial owner, donated the building to Alpine Festival. This group succeeded in their effort to have Cottrill’s Opera House added to the National Register of Historic Places. In 1981, Alpine Heritage Preservation, a new organization, was incorporated as a 501(c)(3). Its mission: restore Cottrill’s Opera House.

AHP’s restoration work includes the following milestones:

  • Resurfaced main roof; rebuilt rotted truss ends (1982)

  • Stabilized ceiling joists and windows; continued truss end repairs (1984)

  • Stabilized first floor (1989)

  • Installed new roof; stabilized mortar and basement walls (2001)

  • Erected fire egress tower (2003)

  • Renovated north end of ground floor; installed fire alarm system (2008)

  • Renovated middle of ground floor; commissioned study of trusses, confirming structural integrity (2013)

  • Secured tenants for street-level storefronts, which currently serve as the headquarters for ArtSpring, a local non-profit that serves as the Tucker County Arts Council

Now, Alpine Heritage Preservation is gearing up to complete its renovation efforts and tackle the auditorium space itself. To learn more about the project, check out the plan.

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Cottrill’s Opera House is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Elevation drawings of the Opera House trusses from a structural integrity evaluation in 2013. The study concluded that the trusses are in “overall very good condition,” though repairs and maintenance remain to be done.

Elevation drawings of the Opera House trusses from a structural integrity evaluation in 2013. The study concluded that the trusses are in “overall very good condition,” though repairs and maintenance remain to be done.

  1. Belanger, Ruth. “Thomas and its Opera House,” Goldenseal, pp. 23–30.