A brief history of the Newark Opera House


opera house
Courtesy of the National Register of Historic Places.
Although the building now houses students and businesses, it used to be a historic opera house.

Throughout its long history, Newark’s Main Street has been a microcosmic landscape that has evolved to reflect the current times. It was not always the social and economic hub it is today, however. Long before Chipotle, Grotto Pizza and Brew Haha! were on the scene, Newark Opera House helped to transform the sleepy road into a bustling local cultural center.

In its early years, the property, which is on the corner of Academy and Main Street, was owned by John Pemberton, a butcher. The city’s residents were not in favor of the butcher shop and adjoined slaughterhouse, complaining of the “awful stench” that it gave off, according to an excerpt of public record minutes published by the Pencader Heritage Museum.

In 1885, David Caskey, who was a member of Newark’s Board of Health, bought it from Pemberton and built Caskey Hall, a three story building that helped to transform Main Street.

Acting troupes could rent Caskey hall for $2.00 per night to hold their performances, and the hall hosted lecturers, like Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, a noted abolitionist, suffragist and pro-evolution preacher.

Caskey remained in possession of the building for about 17 years until 1902, when, according to the Newark Post, he sold it to Samuel J. Wright and associates. Wright, an influential community member who had served as a commissioner on Newark’s city council in 1886, renamed the building “Newark Opera House.” He added electricity and a fourth floor amongst other extensive renovations in the early 20th century.

During the early part of the 20th century, the opera house held commencements for the local high school, continued to host plays, dances and speakers, including civil rights leader Booker T. Washington in 1910, and became one of the first places in the area that residents could go and witness a groundbreaking new technology: motion pictures.

According to documents provided by the Newark Historical Society, Wright incorporated Newark Opera House on March 2, 1914, buying 450 shares himself, and remained on its board of directors until at least 1925.

In the 1930s the opera house fell victim to the Great Depression and fell behind on its bills. It was eventually deemed unsafe to show movies and the upper floors were converted to apartments with the lower floor being occupied by businesses.

Since then the building has been renovated numerous times, and the first floor space has been occupied by a variety of businesses including restaurants, a general store, a bank and a post office.

In 1982, Newark Opera House was added the the National Register of Historic Places. Its nomination form stated the building’s significance as “[providing] an important commercial and entertainment center for Newark residents at the turn of the century,” and “[remaining] a fine example of Second Empire architecture.”

Today, the building houses apartments while Calios and Grassroots occupy the first floor. Grassroots has been at the opera house for about 20 years, according to Kristin Short, one of the boutique’s owners.

The bottom floor of the building is owned by Short’s mother and stepfather, and the upper floors are owned by a real estate company that rents out the apartments.

Short says that there is little evidence that the building used to be a theater since it has gone through many renovations over the past century, but she and the owners work to keep as much of its original look as possible.

“[We are] trying to maintain the aesthetic of the building in a way that honors the building,” she says. “It’s a gorgeous centerpiece of the town.”

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