The Newberry Opera House, an eclectic brick structure designed by Gottfried L. Normann of Atlanta, was originally erected as a combination city hall and venue for traveling theatrical shows. In the second half of the twentieth century it became the subject of one of South Carolina’s longest historic preservation campaigns, lasting almost forty years. The campaign ultimately resulted in the renovation of the building and the return to its original use as a theater.
Located in the heart of Newberry, the building’s design mixes several architectural styles in typical Victorian fashion: Italianate window frames grace the first floor; the tower profile suggests the Romanesque; and Gothic Revival elements frame the main entrance and the tower’s upper portion. Normann’s plans, which were completed in 1880, called for municipal offices on the ground floor and a theater upstairs that was arranged as a double-height space with a horseshow balcony. The building’s cornerstone was laid in 1881 and the structure was finished the following year.
In the 1930s the Newberry Opera House was converted into a motion picture cinema. This conversion entailed removing the horseshoe balcony and replacing it with a simpler one. This new balcony, in accordance with Jim Crow law and custom, accommodated African American moviegoers, who reached it via a newly constructed exterior stairway. The movie house ceased operation in 1952. The City of Newberry subsequently renovated portions of the building for offices and utilized the upstairs hall for public functions. By 1959, however, the building’s deteriorated condition was such that the building’s future was uncertain. Fearing the loss of a local landmark, a group of citizens fought for its preservation and for its inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places in 1970.
Finally, in the mid-1990s, interest in restoring the building for use as a performance space came to fruition. Following an exterior restoration, the Greenville-based firm Craig, Gaulden and Davis designed a new theater within the space originally occupied by Normann’s theater. The architects brought to bear on this project the considerable expertise their firm had gained in designing the Greenville Little Theatre (1967), a facility noted for its conduciveness to staging.
The Newberry Opera House’s new theater has a well-arranged backstage and support facilities as well as an auditorium whose sightlines are entirely free of obstructions. The understated auditorium features clean lines indicative of Craig, Gaulden and Davis’s modern design approach as well as detailing sympathetic to the Victorian character of the Newberry Opera House’s exterior.
Barker, James F., et al. South Carolina Architecture: 1970–2000. Clemson, S.C.: Clemson University, 2003.
Fant, James W., “Newberry Opera House,” Newberry County, South Carolina. National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, 1969. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C.
Moye, Ollie. “The Newberry Opera House.” Sandlapper3, no. 11 (November 1970): 8-11.