In the past, Niagara Discoveries has looked in on the two Hodge Opera Houses that once occupied the corner of Main and Market streets. Tuesday, February 25th, marks the 92nd anniversary of the fire that destroyed the second Hodge Opera House. But before either of those edifices were built, another structure stood in that place for nearly 50 years.
Morris Tucker came to Lockport in 1821 to set up a grocery business to supply the hundreds of canal laborers who would soon be constructing the locks and excavating the Deep Cut. He erected (some sources say he “found”) a small frame building on the south side of Main near Pine Street. He later moved to a larger store further east on Main Street. A year later, either Tucker or his mother-in-law, Dolly McLean, (sources differ on this) built a house on west side of Market Street near the corner of Main. This was later described as a “pretentious frame dwelling painted white and surrounded by a white picket fence that extended some distance down Market Street.”
For a few years, in the 1840s, Dr. John Shuler rented the Tucker house and his name is on the property on the 1851 map of Lockport. Two nearby lots are labeled “Mrs. Tucker.” Mrs. Tucker was the former Esther McLean whom Morris married in 1822 in Geneseo.
In 1853, Tucker became a partner in the Merchant’s Gargling Oil Company, and being a creative and engaging businessman, was able to market the product all over the world. He hired John Hodge to assist with the marketing effort and the two men soon became related when Hodge married Tucker’s daughter, Cordelia.
In 1863 the Merchant’s Cottage Street factory burned down and the company moved to the corner of Main and Market streets using a barn on the Tucker property for the new factory. Morris Tucker died in 1866 and Cordelia died in childbirth in 1867. With the death of his only child, Morris Tucker’s will stipulated that John Hodge would inherit his estate.
With Tucker’s inheritance, and his own profits from Merchant’s Gargling Oil, Hodge envisioned the building of a large, ornate, opera house for Lockport. Rather than tearing the Tucker homestead down, Hodge had it moved to East Avenue where it later became the Lockport Professional Building, which remained standing until the 1980s. In 1871, Hodge set about constructing his Opera House at Main and Market.
An ornate, four-story, domed tower graced the top of the building and the Opera House on the third floor could seat up to 1,500 people. Offices occupied the second floor, with shops, restaurants and other businesses at street level. The Town and City of Lockport used space in the building to store vital records and the Post Office was located on the first floor as well.
For almost ten years the Hodge Opera House attracted local, national and international acts and hosted political candidates including several presidential contenders. Dubbed “the finest building in the city,” the Hodge Opera House was the pride of Lockport and the envy of many other locales. But the structure was to last only 10 years.
At 3:15 a.m. on Wednesday, January 5, 1881, flames were spotted by a patrolling policeman coming out of Staats’ Restaurant in the basement of the Opera House. The flames quickly consumed the massive stone building and the wind moved the fire in a northeasterly direction right toward the five-story factory of the Merchant’s Gargling Oil Company, the next structure down Market Street. By 10 a.m. both of these grand edifices were in ruins and the firemen were struggling to keep the fire from spreading even further.
Despite this setback, John Hodge remained undaunted and vowed to rebuild his Opera House. It opened a year later, and 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 activity, 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 14years 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.