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The historic building of Oak Knoll

January 11, 2012 1 comment

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.

The Masonic Hall/Opera House

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.”

Click here for more information on New Castle, Delaware: A Walk Through Time.

Books about Books Part 14: Moving again!

October 22, 2010 Leave a comment
Moving into 310 Delaware Street

Moving into 310 Delaware Street

After taking a break for a month to prepare for and recover from Oak Knoll Fest, we are now back to our weekly excerpt from Books about Books. The story continues…

A traumatic change in our lives occurred in 1998, when we moved the business one block up the street to the third floor of the massive building called the New Castle Opera House. We had moved from Newark to 414 Delaware Street in New Castle in 1979, up the street to 212 Delaware, down the street to a renovated 414 Delaware, and now we had run out of room again. We had a three-story Victorian building with a finished basement full of books and had to get them all to the third floor of the Opera House at 310 Delaware Street.

I had walked past this huge Opera House every day while walking to work. The building had been built by the Masons in 1879 and was typical of many such buildings that have survived to this day. The Masons would create an opera house with high ceilings and a stage on the second floor, meeting space on the third floor, and shops on the first floor that were leased to pay for the building. Each floor contained about 5000 square feet of usable space. Annie Oakley and other famous nineteenth- and twentieth-century actors and performers had danced, sung, and acted on the still-present, well-preserved stage. The first floor had seen a number of businesses come and go during the period I had my business in town including grocery stores, antique stores, and restaurants. There was a cooperative antique mall and tea room on the second floor. However, there was no elevator in the building and the very high ceilings (22 feet on second floor and 11 feet on the third floor) made the third floor a very difficult space to rent. The property owner was a very nice fellow who owned a large computer business in Pennsylvania and had bought the building as an investment property. He had originally worked as a stock boy in the grocery/convenience store that had been on the first floor, so he had fond memories of New Castle. He had spent some serious money preserving the building but it still lacked the essential elevator, modern air conditioning, and heating for the third floor.

I approached the owner and suggested that I would be willing to lease the third floor if he would put in an elevator and modernize the space. The third floor space was empty at that point and wasn’t earning the owner a dime. We worked out the details over the next number of months and signed a basic five-year lease with renewal options in the spring of 1998 with a move-in date of August, as that is when the elevator was to be completed. Hiring Office Movers, Inc., turned out to be a good idea, as the elevator wasn’t finished for another month after our move in and wouldn’t have been nearly as efficient as the moving van/huge crane/and men hanging out the third floor window scheme that they used. The move was disruptive to business, as might be imagined, as all the books had to be put away again in the new space.

Renovating the third floor

Renovating the third floor

The problem of owning an empty 414 Delaware Street proved not to be a problem at all, but a sales opportunity. While teaching at the Rare Book School in Colorado Springs in 1997, I had announced my intention to move my business in New Castle and thus could offer a ready made bookstore all set for a new owner. And the new owner would get the mentoring of an established business right up the street! This appealed to James Goode, one of the students, who bought the building and set up his book business specializing in the sale of rare books on architecture. James fit right into the social life of New Castle, but was more a scholarly author, researcher, and aficionado of the rose than a bookseller and moved back to Washington, DC, three years later, after selling the building to someone who made it into the Velocipede Museum it is today. The money I got from the sale was used to buy a nice beach-front property that Millie and I continue to enjoy.