The majority of those migrating westward during the 19th century brought the trappings of culture with them. If they had come from eastern communities of even moderate size, there would have been a wide variety of entertainments available—from opera to vaudeville—and those cultural expectations traveled Westward with settlement.
Regardless of the community’s size or situation—whether agricultural or mountain mining outpost—its cultural aspirations mandated a venue for troupes of entertainers “on the circuit”, moving from town to town along the expanding rail network, the same show in a different hall each night, living from a trunk, and very likely oblivious to where they were along the route. In each settlement, the “opera house” was formulaic: two or three stories; central entry flanked by commercial rental space; other rental space along the street for offices and professionals; and a one- or two-story auditorium hidden within, often marked by the fly loft for scenery and curtains. Fire escapes let patrons safely to the ground—if you were lucky. Consider these three—Grand Forks, North Dakota; Superior, Wisconsin; and Aurora, Illinois—as typical of the type:
Agincourt’s first setting for mass culture was Harney’s Orpheum, a fire-prone building on the south side of the square, facing the Civil War monument. I’ve never designed it, but some day I’ll have to, just so it can burn and be replaced by The Auditorium of the mid-1890s, Agincourt’s valiant attempt to keep up with the Joneses, or in this case Chicago. That building is designed and, in fact, now nicely restored from its ’50s deterioration, one of the city’s earliest preservation efforts.
In the meantime, enjoy this festive sampling of urban audacity.