Built as a theater to host traveling shows, the original Opera House had 500 seats that could be removed if the town wanted to hold a dance. Renowned opera singer Clara Louise Kellogg, who was born in Sumter, performed there and Belva Ann Lockwood, a 19th century suffragette and the first woman to argue cases before the US Supreme Court, gave a speech there.
It was during a performance by a traveling company from New York in 1892 that fire broke out in a dressing room and destroyed much of the building.
The second Opera House was built in the Richardsonian Romanesque style, named after architect Henry Hobson Richardson, who was born in 1838.
According to the building’s application for the National Register of Historic Places, the style is very rare in the South as there was little money for high-end architectural work after the Civil War.
The second building included a 100-foot clock tower and was designed by Augusta, Georgia architect J.C. Turner.
For the next 40 years, the Opera House provided entertainment to the community, but it eventually turned into a movie house — like so many other facilities across the country. The renovation work was done in the middle of the Great Depression, providing some much-needed jobs to locals.
The first film shown was "Earthworm Tractors" starring comedian Joe E. Brown. Admission was 35 cents and the movie house lasted for 46 years.
But in the 1980s, single-screen, downtown movie theaters were a thing of the past, so the building was abandoned until the city renovated it to its 19th century glory for office space. Today the building acts as City Hall and houses the City Council chambers, as well as other city departments.
The performance space was also renovated and national traveling performers again stop by to play, just as they did in the beginning.
Sumter Opera House, 21 N. Main St., Sumter, SC 29150. 803.436.2616. Tours are available by request. Check the website for a calendar of upcoming performances.