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Gainesville's Opera House Then & Now

P. Marlin April 2015

Then and Now photo of downtown Gainesville Opera House (early 1900's) compared with today's view of the same street and building. UF Digital Collections

Due to an economic boom brought on by the railroad, Gainesville, Florida, was flourishing in the early 1880's. With its population steadily increasing, the town would become one of Florida's largest, boasting an opera house, paved streets, city water, telephones and electric lights. The commercial center of Gainesville was courthouse square which consisted of large wooden buildings. This area extended some eight blocks beyond the central structure, the county courthouse building (built in 1856). Located at the southwest corner of courthouse square was Roper Hall, Gainesville's first opera house. An old wooden frame building, Roper Hall was remembered in an April 29, 1909 Gainesville Sun article,

"its bare apartment unceiled, unpainted, unplastered walls, rickety benches, and approached from the outside by an unsafe, delapidated stairway dimly lighted by unsavory, uncertain kerosene lamps."

In the 1800's two devastating fires swept through Gainesville destroying many of the old wooden structures including the courthouse and Roper Hall. After the fires, Gainesville rebuilt with an emphasis on brick structures. A new red-brick courthouse symbolized its growth from town to city and a new two-story brick building called the J. Simonson's Opera House replaced Roper Hall. The new J. Simonson's Opera House occupied the second floor of the new building while the first floor contained a saloon and cigar store. Around 1893, Simonson sold the property to J.F. Edwards, who renamed it the Edwards Opera House.

In 1906 the ownership and name of the opera house changed again when Eberle Baird purchased the building. Baird made the first major structural change by adding a third story to provide balcony space for the opera house, increasing the seating capacity to 1,000 and renaming it the New Baird Theater.

The new courthouse (unfortunately, this was replaced in the 1960's). UF Digital Collections

First the J. Simonson's Opera House, then the Edwards Opera House, and eventually the new Baird Theater, pictured here with the newly added third floor. The courthouse was across the street. UF Digital Collections

The opera house was Gainesville's center of entertainment for a wide variety of stage and musical productions for many years. Vaudeville acts such as Faye Templeton and the Lyman Twins performed at the theater. Interviewed as part of the Samuel Proctor Oral History Project, "Discovering Oral History" on August 6, 1986, Judge Benjamin M. Tench described the opera house:

"In the 1890's Gainesville was really a thriving resort town to some extent. There was a musical comedy star then called Faye Templeton, and she and her father and mother wintered here and entertained here."

In 1906 when the opera house became Baird Theater, it was leased to Louis Kalbfield who staged the operas, "Martha" and "Bohemian Girl" and then eventually added "moving pictures." Renowned personalities like William Jennings Bryan addressed an audience at the theater in 1912.

Vaudeville star, Faye Templeton. UF Digital Collections

An advertisement for the Lyman Twins appeared in the Gainesville Sun, February 11, 1909.

Baird Theater was not able to compete with newer movie theaters and closed around 1929. The saloon on the first floor had already closed in 1904 when the county went dry and was replaced by J.W. McCollum and Co., prescription druggists who occupied the address for 35 years. Other businesses would come and go throughout the 1920's, including a grocery store, a tailor, a bakery and a beauty shop. Lawyer's offices, an insurance agency and a photographer's studio were on located on the second floor.

In 1939, having lost their building in a fire, Cox Furniture Company purchased the old Baird Theater and had it renovated. The theater was removed from the second and third floors and the original brick bearing walls were reinforced with steel framing. The stage flys gallery that rose above the roof was removed and an electric elevator installed. Most of the renovation was interior, hardly any changes were made to the exterior. Cox Furniture operated from this location until 1991, at which time the company went out of business and closed the store.

Postcard of Cox Furniture Store UF Digital Collections

After being vacant for a few years, Harry's Seafood Bar & Grille moved into the old Cox Furniture/Baird Theater building in 1994. In 2015 I visited Harry's and noticed one indicator of the past that still remained, "Cox's" can still be seen on the entryway flooring (photo below),

"Cox's" can still be seen on the entry way floor.

Then and Now photo shows courthouse square with old cars and the Baird Theater in the distance. The building to the right is part of the present day courthouse. UF Digital Collections E.H. Bone, photographer


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