Lockport Union-Sun & Journal — An era in the history of Lockport and Niagara County came to an end on a frigid February day in 1928. At about 1:00 p.m. on February 25th, a spark somehow ignited “inflammable” material in the basement of the Merchant’s Gargling Oil building on Market Street and quickly spread to the block long Hodge Opera House next door. When it was all over the next day all that was left were ice encased ruins of its massive ornate façade. Eleven million gallons of water had been poured on the building, which later froze in the 3-degree temperatures. The ice and snow clinging to the ruins gave the Opera House a haunted, surreal look.
This had not been the first time the Hodge Opera House had been destroyed by fire. The first Opera House had been built in 1871 by John Hodge who also owned Merchant’s Gargling Oil. An ornate four-story tower graced the top of the building at the intersection of Main and Market Streets. The opera house itself was located on the third floor and could seat up to 1,500 people. Offices occupied the second floor with shops, restaurants and other businesses at street level. The City of Lockport also used space in the building to store vital records. Less than 10 years later, in January 1881, the Hodge Opera House burned down for the first time.
John Hodge vowed to rebuild and the following year, the second Hodge Opera House opened. Though not quite as ornate as the first, and minus the tower, the second structure still commanded a presence in downtown Lockport. The new Opera House contained 2,000 seats including many private boxes. For the next 33 years, the theater was the center of Lockport’s entertainment industry, attracting singers, actors and statesmen from all over the world. In 1914, with the rise of motion pictures, the Opera House was removed from the third floor and it was converted into office space. Though the Opera House itself was gone, the name hung on for fourteen years until the 1928 fire brought an end to the building and to the name.
In 1929, the property was purchased by Richard Bewley who erected a five-story office building with retail shops at street level. The Bewley Building incorporated the remaining back wall of the former structure into its construction, so in a sense the Hodge Opera House has not completely disappeared from the Lockport landscape or from its collective memory.Ann Marie Linnabery is the assistant director of the History Center of Niagara.