The successful rehabilitation of the Wright Opera House is being recognized with the Governor’s Award for the 2022 Stephen H. Hart Award for Archaeology and Historic Preservation. The Stephen H. Hart Award recognizes exemplary projects that contribute to innovative techniques and advances in preservation while implementing historic design and craftsmanship. The Governor’s Award recognizes the Wright Opera House as the best in historic preservation, honoring historic artistry, and in implementing the proper preservation techniques and ethics.
The award first came about in 1986, when Colorado’s first Preservation Officer, Stephen Hart, was recognized. Believing that preservation in Colorado could be influenced by law, Mr. Hart was able to save many historic sites. The award is a commemoration of Stephen Hart’s work and dedication to preserving Colorado’s history.
There have been many hours of dedication put into the building from many people involved in the Wright. Receiving this award is recognition of all of the hard work from those individuals. The Wright is incredibly honored to receive this award which represents our passion for preserving this beautiful building and its history.
An award ceremony is scheduled to take place on Tuesday, April 19, 2022 at the History Colorado Center. Several members of the staff, Board of Directors and dedicated individuals will be in attendance to receive this prestigious award. In the coming months, an award ceremony will be held in Ouray to celebrate this honor with the wonderful community.
Photo by Lizzie Tilles
About The Wright Opera House
In 1881, brothers Ed and George Wright purchased several lots at the southwestern corner of 5th Avenue & Main St. (Highway 550), where they first built the Wright Brothers Building, a two-story brick structure that was considered “a wonder of the time.” A few years later, to the south of this earlier building, the Wright brothers began construction of the Wright Opera House because Ed Wright and his wife, Letitia, believed that the populace of Ouray needed to be provided with cultural opportunities to offset the influence of the dance halls, saloons, gambling dens, and houses of ill repute. They wanted to create a decent establishment that would feature cultural and educational programs of high quality for the entertainment and enlightenment of the young people and adults within the community.
The Wright Opera House was one of several imposing brick structures in Ouray during the late 1880s and early 1890s. This building “with its decorative iron front structural style and cast-iron piers supporting the pressed metal front of the second floor was an addition the town could be proud of. Above the middle window of the second floor was a stained-glass window and at the top and center of the building in pressed iron WRIGHTS HALL was clearly visible. A wrought-iron balcony extended in front of the three middle windows on the second floor, all of which was manufactured by Mesker Brothers Iron Works of St. Louis, Missouri. It is one of 19 structures on Ouray’s Main Street that boast Mesker iron facades, which makes Ouray’s Main Street what is believed to be one of the largest concentrations of Mesker fronts still extant in the United States today. The hall was entered through a door level with a sidewalk on Third (Main) Street at the north end of the building and a stairway led up to the hall with the ticket office at the top. According to Darius Bryka of the Illinois Department of Historic Preservation and an expert on Mesker buildings, the Wright Opera House is the finest example of a Mesker Building that he has seen in the United States.
The grand opening of the Wright Opera House was held on December 4, 1888, with a benefit concert and ball given by the Magnolia Band to pay for uniforms. Later that month on December 19, 1888, Professors David and Laux provided a musical program consisting of piano and organ duets.
In the early 1900’s the auditorium closed and was utilized as a gymnasium. A state basketball final was held in the converted auditorium in the 1920’s. Due to several devastating floods that destroyed the downstairs, the upstairs theater was condemned and remained vacant for many years.
In 1906, the Wright’s first motion picture was screened. In 1977, mayor William D. Fries, also known as C.W.. McCall, leased the second floor for patrons to view his photos of the surrounding mountains. The San Juan Odyssey, a stunning scenic tour of the San Juan high country was screened on the south wall during the summer months for 20 years.
Over the years, the downstairs portion of the Wright has worn many hats and survived several floods. In the beginning, the Braddock Dry Goods Company utilized the whole first floor. In 1915, Ouray’s first garage opened and was owned by Walter Wheeler and Ed Hestwood. Then in May of 1915, George Wright sold the building to a local Masonic lodge. A little over a year later, Alfred Armstrong acquired the building from the lodge in October 1916 and began to operate the Armstrong Garage. The Franz brothers purchased the property in 1946 and began to operate the General Ore Reduction Company. Francis and Mary Kuboske purchased the Wright Building and the Wright Opera house in 1965, and operated their Scenic Jeep Tours out of the Wright Building’s first floor. In 1983, the Ouray Candy Company began operating in the building. Even a Texaco once operated at the Wright, with a gas pump located in front of the building on the sidewalk.
Today, the Wright building houses apartments, a green room, an internet company and a climbing gym. The Wright Opera House hosts many events throughout the year, including the Ouray International Film Festival and an annual melodrama. The Tavern at the Wright operates on the first floor, featuring food, drinks and events such as murder mystery dinner theatres and trivia nights. An independent bakery also operates on the first-floor.
Preservation of the Wright Opera House
Towards the end of the 21st century, word of a cafeteria being put into the Wright theatre spread. The next proprietor spoke of tearing out the front windows and converting the building into apartments. Group of local history lovers got together and formed the Friends of the Wright Opera House in 2008 and fundraised in hopes of purchasing the building. With seventy-five percent of the funds coming from donations, and the rest from the Colorado Historical Fund, Gates Family Foundation, Boetcher Foundation, El Pomar, the Friends of the Wright were able to purchase the property in 2011.
Jim Opdahl began the restoration process, with Charlie Berger then Mark Orgren continuing the project. The first big project on the list of improvements was replacing the roof. Next was replacing the south-east corner foundation due to its state of deterioration. We then installed an elevator that services all 3 levels with ADA access to the back of the building. Because the theatre level is a large open space, there are limited support structures. This has aided in allowing the building to lean. In order to implement a proper solution, the whole foundation needed to be in top shape, which directed us in the next phase of restoration. While working in the basement, the electrical was updated as well as numerous bricks on the south wall being replaced. There was work going on in other parts of the opera house as well, like removing plaster from various inside walls and revealing beautiful brick from Francis Carney’s brickyard, which was located in today’s Fellin Park. Many volunteers spent personal time in restoring this grand lady. Jim Opdahl was the main asset in getting this project started and spent many personal hours, single handedly working on the building.
Recently upgraded is a full-sized movie screen, a new stage lighting system, a new sound system and a digital projector. A box office was built on the first floor where patrons are able to purchase tickets. The Tavern is the most recent update to the first floor, where an original brick archway was discovered during the remodel. A catering kitchen, along with restrooms have also been installed. In the future, there are plans to update the back of the building, including a balcony and an updated fire egress and adding a performance area to the back lot.
The Wright’s Mission
The Wright was built to provide a community gathering place that was family friendly as opposed to the saloons and brothels of the time. Ed Wright’s wife, Letitia, wanted to improve Ouray’s environment for their daughter, Irene, and bring a thespian experience to the mining town.
Today, the Wright still promotes a sense of community gathering and entertainment for Ouray. According to the Wright’s Executive Director, Alyssa Preston, the Wright, its Staff, donors and volunteers are “renovating for the future, while preserving the past.” Stepping into the building, you can see the dedication and care that has gone into preserving this magnificent place. There is a profound love for the building from anyone involved with the organization. The Wright Opera House would not be possible without all of the wonderful people who are involved, from donors to the volunteers and staff.
We have had quite an exciting winter at The Wright! The biggest excitement has been being able to have our new Tavern open. As you recall, we had our Grand Opening on New Year’s Eve 2020, and then the pandemic hit. We have made great strides with getting back the momentum of that Grand Opening event, and I believe we are achieving that goal! Towards that end, the Tavern Committee made the decision to approach the winter season as Peak Season for the Tavern and gear events for our local patrons. We have come up with programming that is fun for locals to enjoy with their friends and neighbors. Such events include Trivia Night, Bingo Night and Murder Mystery Dinner Theatre! In looking forward to our summer season, we have scheduled live theatre with Ouray County Players, UpstART and Open House Theatricals from Kansas City. Our traditional Wednesday Night Movies and 4th Friday Foreign Films are continuing to screen, and we will hold our 3rd annual Ouray International Film Festival at the end of June. There are two Saturdays for our Wright Summer Festival, May 28 and Oct 1, in which you will be able to support our local artists through the purchase of their creations. There are, of course, many other events on our 2022 calendar, so please visit our Upcoming Events page on our website.
Operations at The Wright are also moving along quite nicely. We are offering several dates for our patrons to come in and have a danish and a tour of the building to view all the latest goings-on. Please feel free to stop by between 9-11am on May 10, August 23 or November 1. You are, of course, always welcome to stop in and meet us in person. The Executive Office is located on the south end of the building at 450 Main St. Our elegant venue is being sought after more and more for weddings and other private events, which is quite exciting. As some of you may have already heard, our Wright Next Door (WND) tenant, Basecamp Ouray, is moving to another location and we wish Logan Tyler all the best! This presents us with an opportunity to acquire a new tenant before summer. The Board is excited to see how we can enliven our corner of 5th & Main in Ouray!
As always, it is my delight to work for you!
Where would we be without the folks who volunteer for all of the many jobs here at the Wright? Box Office, Concessions, Usher, Tavern Assistance, Seasonal Decoration, Painting, Cleaning and so much more! Without you, our willing volunteers, we wouldn’t be able to open our doors, so Thank You very much!
Please join us at The Wright in 2022 for Danishes with Donors. We would love for you to come tour the facility and hear about what we have been up to and have planned for the future.
We look forward to seeing you (and a friend) on any or all of the dates below from 9-11 am.
The Wright Opera House is a 501c3 nonprofit, operating a historic venue and premier performing arts organization located in the City of Ouray. It is supported by event fees and by generous donations. Click here to make a tax deductible donation to the Wright.