The historic building of Oak Knoll
The new title New Castle, Delaware: A Walk Through Time by Delaware authors Barbara E. Benson and Carol E. Hoffecker reveals the evolution of the town of New Castle from its seventeenth-century settlement to the leafy, beautiful city of today. There is one chapter that the staff here at Oak Knoll particularly likes, which is the chapter revealing the history of the historic Masonic Hall/Opera House—the building that is now the home of Oak Knoll Books and Press. At the opening of the Opera House, there were over 10,000 people gathered around the building in celebration, probably the biggest crowd it has ever seen! There is some great history packed into this chapter, so check out this excerpt that reveals the story behind Oak Knoll’s building.
If you walk up from the river along Delaware Street soaking in the colonial and Federal atmosphere around you, a large, proudly imposing structure that clearly comes from another time confronts you and demands a second look. Glancing upward you will see a plaque attached to the middle of the top floor that displays symbols of the Masonic Order and the Odd Fellows and proclaims that the building was “Erected in 1879.” This is the Masonic Hall and Opera House, and it represents New Castle’s best example of the Second Empire style.
The Opera House was constructed at a discouraging time in New Castle. The state legislature had just enacted a law to build a modern New Castle County Courthouse in Wilmington. For the first time in its history New Castle would no longer be a county seat. Many of the town’s leading men were lawyers. How many of them would remain in town? In the face of this potentially serious blow, it took courage and optimism for the Masons and Odd Fellows to agree to vacate their meeting space on the top floor of the Town Hall and to build an opera house with lodge meeting rooms. The lodges appointed a joint committee to undertake the work. The leader was William Herbert, one of New Castle’s most active citizens, a businessman and politician who served in many county and state offices, including county sheriff and state treasurer. William Herbert was a booster determined to restore New Castle’s damaged civic pride.
The man chosen to design the opera house was Theophilus P. Chandler Jr. (1845-1928). Chandler was one of Philadelphia’s most professionally accomplished architects. The founder of the Department of Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, he designed all manner of buildings including churches, commercial structures, and residences. He was the favorite architect of the du Pont family for whom he made a number of residential designs, including an addition to Winterthur.
During that year, Chandler worked on the New Castle Opera House he was simultaneously constructing the new courthouse in Wilmington, which was also in the style of the Second Empire. The courthouse in Wilmington lasted for only a generation and was razed at the end of World War I to make way for Rodney Square, but the New Castle Opera House still stands. Only an accomplished professional could have designed such a large structure, measures 50 feet by 100 feet at its base and standing three stories high. The tallest floor is the second, which housed a hall with a stage and seating capacity for 600 people. This grand room was capable of hosting meetings or traveling shows. The first floor contained retail shops, and the third floor provided meeting rooms for the Masons and the Odd Fellows.
The New Castle Opera House may not have rivaled the grandeur of the Paris Opera, but for a small American town it had lots of bells and whistles. It is built of brick decorated with rusticated flat stone pilasters and includes a projecting central pavilion, galvanized iron cornice, and quoined corners. There are sets of tall double-arched windows with semi-dressed stone block surrounds featuring keystone centers and caps at the bottoms. The roof edges are enhanced by fence-like balustrades. Four elaborate brick chimneys protrude from the hipped roof. Originally there was also a cupola on the center of the roof at the front of the building. It was removed as a safety hazard in 1950.
The building cost over $30,000, a large sum in 1880. When it proved too costly for the Masons and Odd Fellows to pay the mortgage, William Herbert assumed the debt personally. No wonder New Castle historian Alexander B. Cooper called him “the father of the building,” and went on to say that “it stands today largely as a monument to his memory.”
GRAND OPENING OF NEW CASTLE’S NEW HALL
Ceremonies of Dedication
Immense Display—Good Music
September 13, 1880
“This is a big day for New Castle, and celebrates a plucky and hopeful step in the town’s new departure,” said a Wilmington newspaper. A crowd estimated at between 10,000 and 15,000 people, the largest gathering in New Castle’s history, assembled to witness the dedication of the splendid new Opera House. The three-story building will serve two principal fraternal organizations: the St. John’s Lodge of Ancient Free and Accepted Masons and the Washington Lodge of Odd Fellows. To celebrate this event large contingents of lodge members in full parade regalia came by steamboat and railway from Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Salem and Camden, New Jersey, and other towns in the region. As bands played and steamboat whistles blew, the lodge members marched up Delaware Street from the wharf to the “imposing and ornamental Hall.”
Long tables laid out with sandwiches, pies, cakes, and fruit greeted visitors at the dock, next to the Town Hall, and in the public square. Buildings along all the major streets were “profusely and gorgeously decorated with flags and flowers.” The Opera House itself was festooned with signal flags lent for the occasion by the revenue cutter USS Hamilton, which was in the harbor. The day climaxed with the Rev. J.H. Caldwell’s sermon describing Biblical analogies such as the dedication of Solomon’s Temple. In the evening there was a grand ball led by William Herbert, the man most responsible for seeing the project through. Dancing continued until dawn.
The Wilmington press noted the special significance of the new building as a forward step for a town that was losing the county seat. For too long, according to one newsman, New Castle residents had relied on giving entertainments in the courthouse. Another writer contrasted the crowds that gathered for the celebration with the “vulgar curiosity” of the somewhat smaller crowds that had long met in New Castle to witness hangings and whippings. “New Castle has reason to be proud of her hall and of the exercises of yesterday. The day will long be noted in her annals as among the greatest she has known.” The hall, he predicted, would stand as a symbol of New Castle’s growing “spirit of enterprise and energy.”
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