A dynamite blast traditionally launches the Central City Opera season as the town revels in its best-known landmark. Built of local brick and stone, the opera house seats 500 on the lower floor and 250 in the balcony.
The Gilpin County Opera Association raised money by popular subscription to build Colorado's first notable theater. While many wanted a pretentious opera house, Robert Roeschlaub, his daughter Alice later claimed, “stood fast for a different type—one that would be in harmony with the great mountains surrounding it, an expression of the new and simple West.” One-foot-thick stone and firebrick side walls lack decorative elements, which are saved for the front. The symmetrical facade, faintly Chateauesque, has arched openings, a balcony cantilevered over the entrance, and corner pavilions rising to a tripartite mansard roof with a central roundel. Inside, two grand staircases spiral from the lobby to the balcony.
After the 1878 grand opening, the house survived by hosting political rallies, wrestling matches, lectures, high school graduations, and funerals. The association sold it to Peter McFarlane in 1900, and he converted it to a movie house, which closed in 1927. The abandoned, deteriorating opera house was acquired in the early 1930s by philanthropist Anne Evans and Ida Kruse McFarlane, Peter McFarlane's daughter-in-law. They founded the Central City Opera House Association, which staged a glorious 1932 reopening with Lillian Gish starring in Camille. Despite uncomfortable seating and distant restrooms—reminders of the building's primitive rural origins—the house has thrived, inspiring similar restorations in Aspen and Telluride.