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Florence Opera House nominated for historic list

Florence Opera House reflected French culture

Staff writer

The Historic Sites Board of Reviews at the Kansas State Historical Society in Topeka approved the nomination Nov. 20 of the Florence Opera House at Fifth and Main streets in Florence to the National Register of Historic Places.

The nomination has been forwarded to the office of the Keeper of the National Register of Historic Places in Washington, D.C., for review. If staff members approve it, the building will be listed on the National Register.

The building is owned by Randy and Judy Mills, who acquired it after the closure several years ago of the grocery store that occupied the ground floor.

Christy Davis of Davis Preservation of Topeka assisted the Mills in doing research and compiling information on the building.

“We felt like it needed to be preserved,” Judy Mills said. “Not many opera houses are still standing.”

Mills said the building reflects the unique culture that French immigrants brought to Florence. Although less than 100 of them settled at Florence, they had a big impact on the town.

They were known for their artistic and musical abilities and for their love of socializing and recreation. Wedding celebrations were three-day events.

The Ernest Ginette family was a center of talent itself. Ernest Ginette Sr. was a painter. He organized a Florence Brass Band in 1884 and led it for years. Mrs. Ginette was in charge of music at the Catholic church for many years.

The French were instrumental in building a grandstand in the middle of an intersection on Main Street for band concerts.

In January 1874, Madame Victoria Gost started a millinery store featuring the latest Paris fashions in ready-to-wear clothing and accessories. She traveled to New York City for merchandise and to fill special orders.

On July 14, 1889, more than 200 French-speaking persons gathered at the opera house to celebrate the centennial of the storming of the Bastille and the beginning of the French Revolution.

Construction

Built in 1883, the Florence Opera House was conceived by early settlers Gustave Caze, Emile Firmin, and Francis Ayral. They contracted with Emporia builder John M. Anderson to construct the building.

Firmin had been a lawyer in France and became a successful businessman in Florence. He loved the theater and even wrote plays himself. The Firmins moved from the country to town in 1892.

They and Caze — each of whom owned considerable land, a large vineyard, and a large herd of Hereford cattle — sold out a few years later and moved back to France, never to return. Many other French settlers left the area by the end of the century but a few remained and prospered.

Promotional material issued at the time of construction stated that the building’s “imposing height and ornamental finish give grace and dignity to the entire architecture of the town.”

The three-story stone structure was completed in six months for $15,000. The first floor was designed for commercial use. The second floor housed the opera house and offices, and the third floor was used as a stage and dressing rooms, with a balcony at the back.

The Florence Opera House opened on Jan. 24, 1884. The gala event was described by the local newspaper as “an important epoch in the history of Florence.” The house was filled with ladies in beautiful gowns and men in formal attire.

In 1885, Florence had 1,800 residents. The opera house became the center of social activities. Many drama companies and musical groups presented programs there.

Through the years, the opera house was the site of elegant dinner dances, Christmas parties, and high school graduations.

The opera house was closed for programs and shows in 1917, having been replaced by a movie theater across the street.

Judy Mills said the stage on the third floor is no longer there but the building maintains its structural integrity, with tight windows and tin ceilings.

The word “OPERA” in large capital letters remains on the apex of the facade of the building.

Tax credits and grants are available for improving properties listed on the National Register, but the Mills currently have no plans for the future of the building if the nomination is approved.

“We would like to see a grocery store come back,” Judy Mills said.

(Some of this information was gleaned from Marion County Past and Present, by Sondra Van Meter, 1972.)

Last modified Dec. 1, 2010

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