Part 4 of Built to Last: Reusing Industrial Age Buildings in a Postindustrial City: The Case of Willimantic, Connecticut

Jamie H. Eves

Capitol Theater: From Stage to School

   Like courthouses and supermarkets, theaters, too, were artifacts of the industrial era that frequently were built to last. Until 1847, Willimantic had no public hall of any kind — “no place for concerts, lectures, or gatherings of a public character, the want of which was much regretted,” recalled Lloyd  E. Baldwin, a retired Willimantic carpenter, builder, and contractor (and one of the city’s industrial-era elite) in 1895. Baldwin knew what he was talking about. He had moved to Willimantic from Norwich in 1826 as an apprentice carpenter to work on the big stone Windham Cotton Manufacturing Company mill on Bridge Street. He stayed, erecting scores of other structures “built to last”: houses, schools, mills, churches, and stores. The first house that he built as an independent carpenter, the 1831 Dr. William Witter house on Main Street. (23)

   In 1847-48, Baldwin built Willimantic’s first public hall. As Baldwin proudly recalled five decades later, the Franklin Building (as he named it) on Main Street was 36 feet wide, 60 feet deep, and three stories high, with two storefronts on the first floor, six offices on the second, and a 36 x 55 foot hall on the third. When it was finished in April 1848, Baldwin and other city leaders threw a dedication ball with live music, “one of the largest social gatherings ever held here up to that period.” (24)

   In 1879, the same year that Whiting Hayden built the Hayden block, Willimantic got a second, even larger and more elegant theater, the Loomer Opera House (above, 1894), on the corner of Main and North. Like the Franklin Building, the Loomer Opera House was a multi-story structure with storefronts, offices, and a hall. The owner, Silas Loomer, was typical of Willimantic’s industrial-era elite. Born in Columbia and raised in Ellington, CT, Loomer was a well educated, middle-class Yankee. Originally a schoolteacher, he went into business in the 1850s, supplying lumber and coal to Connecticut’s railroads and mills. In 1861, he moved to Willimantic and opened a lumber, lime, and cement business. He served as a state legislator and Windham First Selectman and joined the Board of Directors of three banks and a railroad. He died in 1899, honored, powerful, and wealthy. (25)

   Like Baldwin, Loomer (left, 1894) built his Opera House partly as an investment and partly to show off his status as a community leader. The building was immense: 72 x 240 feet. The theater seated 1,100, and boasted a 60’ x 40’ stage. It was a favorite for traveling vaudeville companies and public speakers. But it was expensive to heat and maintain and too large to accommodate moving pictures, and so was demolished in the late 1930s to make way for a new Woolworth’s chain department store. (26)

   In the 1910s and 1920s, movie theaters came to Willimantic. The oldest, the Gem (left) at 832 Main Street, opened in 1912 and closed in 1961, when the building was taken over by the YMCA. Today it is a magnet school. During the 1925 American Thread Strike, strikers held mass union meetings there. In 1925 the Gem had vaudeville shows on Wednesdays and Saturdays, and Paramount and First National Pictures films the rest of the week. The Capitol (right, 1857) opened in 1926, the year after the strike, at 896 Main Street, and closed in 1973. Like the Loomer Opera House, the Capitol had storefronts (along with a lobby) and offices, with the theater in the back. There was also the Strand at 55 Broad Street, which closed in 1960; the Cameo (another name for the Strand), which operated from 1958 to 1969; the Bijou at 662 Main Street; the Scenic at 19 Bank Street; the Elite; and the postindustrial Jillson Square Cinema, which ran from 1981 to 2006.  In 2006, the Capitol reopened as ACT (Arts at the Capitol Theater), an arts magnet high school, and CTAA (Capitol Theater Arts Academy), a regional arts academy for students of all ages — both managed by EASTCONN, a private nonprofit educational company. It is the largest business on Main Street.