Spring cleaning at the Grand Opera House

By Staff
RETURNING TO THE OPERA HOUSE Dr. Bev. R. Norment, special assistant to the president of Mississippi State University, examines an iron railing that once adorned the balcony of the Grand Opera House. The grilles behind him were once installed on the sides of one of the theatre boxes. Norment, who is overseeing the restoration of the Opera House and Marks-Rothenberg Building, is asking the public to donate other items that were part of the properties so that they can be refurbished or replicated. Photo by Steve Gillespie / The Meridian Star
By Bev. R. Norment / special to The Star
March 13, 2002
It's time for spring-cleaning, and Mississippi State University needs your help. Project architects have been selected for the renovation of the Grand Opera House and Marks-Rothenberg Building into the Riley Education and Performing Arts Center, and the university will be involved for the next eight to 12 months in an intensive "design phase."
Since both of these buildings are of national historical significance, it is important to continue documenting accurately any artifact that was previously or is currently a part of the building fabric. For example, ornamental iron railings were an original feature of the balconies on the Dress Circle and Gallery levels, and an ornamental iron grill adorned the upper loges at the Dress Circle level.
Through the years, the ornamental iron railings and grills were removed. Due to the generosity of local citizens, however, three sections of the iron railing from the balconies and both ornamental grills from the loges have been donated to the Riley Center. The fact that these items have been recovered will enable us to replicate the iron railings for both balconies and restore the grills to their original location.
During the next several months, historic preservation experts will be surveying and researching archival materials to document current and former features of the buildings. The remaining finishes, including wallpapers, decorative coverings, painted and/or stained surfaces, and ornamental designs, will be painstakingly examined and cataloged. This will enable us to replicate with historical accuracy both the interiors and exteriors of the Grand Opera House and Marks-Rothenberg Building. MSU's goal is to restore the buildings as nearly as possible to their appearance of the 1890's and early 1900's.
The adaptive re-use of these buildings will, of course, incorporate many elements of modern technology and convenience. For example, in the 1890's, the normal theatre seat was 18 inches wide. The modern standard for seat width is 22 or 23 inches, which better meets our current expectations for comfortable seating. Plans also call for the center to be equipped with state-of-the-art audio and video technology and wiring to support computer video conferencing.
Good examples of renovated historic structures include the Orpheum in downtown Memphis, the 1894 Grand Opera House in Galveston, Texas, and the Coronado Theatre in Rockford, Ill., to name a few. Each of these buildings shares similarities with the Grand Opera House/Marks-Rothenberg Building. All are national treasures that have been renovated with their historical features preserved or restored. In each instance, citizens of these communities have been instrumental in preserving the history and authenticity of the theatres.
As a result of the dedication and hard work of local citizens and members of the Grand Opera House of Mississippi Inc., many artifacts from Meridian's historic buildings have been collected and archived. Early photographs and other memorabilia have been saved and are housed in the Lauderdale County Department of Archives and History, according to Margaret Remy, who chaired the Opera House board. More early photographs of the Opera House and Marks-Rothenberg may be gathering dust in someone's attic. We would like to locate and preserve such important articles.
Several years ago, Greg Hatcher was strolling though Booker Antiques and spotted a paint-spattered but unusual chair that turned out to be part of the original furnishings of an Opera House box seat. Greg has heard of several other such chairs in Meridian, and encourages anyone who has one to consider donating or loaning it to the Riley Center.
How can you help? If you have early photographs of the Marks-Rothenberg Building or the Grand Opera House, or if you have artifacts from either building particularly the Opera House please consider donating or loaning them to the university. It is important that citizens step forward and help. These buildings are national treasures. Recovering historical documents and original artifacts will enhance the authenticity of the restored buildings' historical features and will heighten the enjoyment of visitors to the Riley Center for generations to come.
If you have items that you would like to loan or donate to the project, please contact me at (601) 484-0228.