On this day 117 years ago, Detroit's opera house burned

Oct 7, 2014 at 11:15 am

The way Detroit's struggling preservationists fight their annual bouts with the wrecking ball, you'd think the battle to save Detroit's architectural legacy was always between lovers of history and art and the industrial-demolition complex. But it wasn't always so. A century ago, the main enemy of architectural continuity wasn't progress, it was fire. A case in point would be the lovely Detroit Opera House, which burned in a spectacular fire 117 years ago today that spread through the city block, causing considerable damage.

Sources say the fire began about an hour after a performance of A Lady of Quality, a historical drama adapted from the popular novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett. The fire was attributed to the explosion of a "calcium light," better known today as a "limelight," a very old-fashioned stage light that persists in our language as the figurative equivalent of a spotlight. Turns out these old calcium lights could be volatile indeed, as one of the tanks feeding the lighting system exploded with enough force to blow a hole in the back of the theater and start a conflagration that consumed the building. Other reports of the time describe a column of fire streaking 100 feet into the air.

The total bill for damages was estimated to be $700,000. It's difficult to calculate just what that translates into in today's dollars, but it is certainly at least tens of millions of dollars. The building was a complete loss, from its French Renaissance front to its Robert Hopkin-decorated interior. Remarkably, the sole casualty of the fire was a young boy, who was crushed to death the following day in a building collapse.

The opera house was rebuilt on the same site and opened in 1898. In 1931, the new building was given a new and ignominious purpose, converted into a discount store. In 1931, it was gutted and converted into a discount store before finally facing the wrecking ball in 1966.