Landmarks - Sonora's Opera Hall


Sonora Opera Hall a ‘Point of Pride’

by Pat Perry

Sonora’s historic Opera Hall, located on South Washington Street, was built from the ruins of the Star Flouring Mill in 1885.

In 1879, James Divoll and his partner in the Bonanza Mine, Joseph Bray, constructed the Star Flouring Mill on the site.  The Bonanza, located between the Red Church and Sonora High School, was the largest pocket mine in the Southern Mines and it was believed by many that gold from the mine was stored in the mill until it was ready for transport to San Francisco.  On the night of August 5, 1885, the flour mill burned.  Although never proved, it was the general consensus that the fire was deliberately set to cover up a robbery.  The night watchman, Jacob Bray (Joseph’s brother), who slept overnight at the mill, was killed in the fire.

Almost immediately Divoll and Bray began to construct the Opera Hall out of the ruins of the flour mill.  The brick walls with stone supports still remained after the fire and became the walls of the Opera Hall.  The five front openings of the mill became the entrances into the Opera Hall.  Divoll had a background in engineering which is evident in the construction of the building, from the stone foundation, brick and stone walls, to the trusses in the attic.

The perimeter walls of the Opera Hall are eighteen inches thick.  Iron tension rods that run north and south through the building are still visible in the upper portion of the walls.  The original roof was of approximately 30-inch long sugar pine shakes.  Originally a large chandelier hung from the center of the building, which could be lowered for lighting by means of a pulley system which still exists on the east interior wall of the balcony.  In addition to the chandelier and smaller surrounding lights, the hall was lighted by large windows in the front and sides.  For comfort, the hall had chairs instead of benches, and Ben Sears, a local artist, was engaged to paint three full sets of scenery and a magnificent drop curtain.  Charles Sell had the construction contract.

One of the local newspapers was very impressed with the progress of construction on the hall, proclaiming,  “The new hall and theatre...will be an edifice of strength and beauty.”   It was 56 feet wide and 75 feet long,  about 15 feet wider and longer than the Turn Verein Hall, which was the only other community center at the time and was located in the north half of Courthouse Park on North Washington Street.  According to the newspaper, the strength of the building was so strong that it would “defy even an earthquake to throw the structure down.” 

The Opera Hall opened for its first event on Christmas Eve 1885, for a roller skating carnival and masquerade ball, a popular form of entertainment for adults and children at that time.  Approximately 350 people attended the event, a large majority of whom were ladies.  The Columbia Cornet Band played.  The paper described the event as “brilliantly lighted and the gay costumes of the different masqueraders, as they circled around the room on the swift rolling skates, was like a picture from fairyland.” 

Many events were held at the Opera Hall during the next ten years, from Washington Birthday balls sponsored by the local volunteer fire companies to the Tuolumne County Fair.  Unfortunately, while the hall was quite popular, the owners lost money on the operation.  In 1896, Joseph Bray became the sole owner of the hall, with plans to convert the building into a carpenter shop.  The Union Democrat stated that, “It seems a shame that the one building in the town to which our people were want to point with pride is to be transformed into a carpenter shop.”

In 1911, Joseph Francis and John Damas purchased the Opera Hall from the estate of Joseph Bray, establishing the Opera Hall Garage.  Francis purchased Damas’ interest in 1922.  It remained as the Opera Hall Garage until 1979.  Subsequent owners were interested in restoring the building, but private funding was not readily available.  The City of Sonora acquired the property in 1986, and, through several historic preservation grants, redevelopment funds, and the efforts of volunteer fundraisers,  the city was able to restore the Opera Hall to its present condition.  It is once again an “edifice of strength and beauty” and a “point of pride” to Sonora’s historic downtown.