117 W. Central
Ellet’s Opera House is an example of Italianate Architecture, the predominant style for commercial building during the 1870’s and 1880’s. Character-defining features of this style include tall narrow windows, cornices, and details such as hood molds. There were two principal periods of downtown development in El Dorado. The first of these occurred in the 1880’s. The second, in the 1910’s and 1920’s, coincided with the oil boom. During the second boom, a new brand of capitalist replaced or modernized many of the 1880’s buildings. Today, very few of the town’s earliest commercial buildings remain.
The building is a rare example of an intact late 19th Century Opera House. Among the character-defining interior features in the opera house space are plaster, wainscoting, ticket booth, dressing rooms and balcony. The building appears to meet the registration requirements for the Opera House property type identified in the Historic Theaters and Opera Houses of Kansas MPS.
Ellet’s Opera House is significant for its association with Alfred Washington Ellet and as a rare intact example of an 1880’s opera house.
Alfred Washington Ellet (1820 – 1985)
Alfred Washington Ellet was a Civil War Brigadier General, engineer and self-described “capitalist” who made El Dorado his home in the years following the Civil War. Ellet was born in Bucks County, Pennsylvania in 1820. At age 16, he moved from his family home in Philadelphia to Bunker Hill, Illinois where he took up farming. By the start of the Civil War, Ellet owned a dry goods store. The Union Army commissioned him as a captain in 1861. In 1862, Ellet became a Lieutenant Colonel, serving under his elder brother Charles Ellet. He was appointed brigadier general of the Mississippi Marine Brigade following his brother’s death. After his unit’s disestablishment in 1864, Ellet resigned his commission and returned to civil engineering.
Ellet left Illinois and moved to El Dorado in 1869. From the time of his arrival, Ellet was held in high esteem – due both to his wealth and generosity. In 1875, after farmers suffered from drought and grasshoppers, Ellet raised “nearly $5,000” toward relief efforts. Ellet’s pursuits included involvement in railroad development. Over the course of his career as a western capitalist, Ellet amassed a fortune. In 1886, his personal property was reported to be worth $200,000. In 1892, a news article noted Ellet’s interests as “banking and stock raising”. Ellet married twice – first Sarah Roberts, with whom he had three children. Ellet’s son Edward Carpenter Ellet was operating a hardware business in 1880. After Sarah’s death, Ellet married Abigail Roberts. Alfred Washington Ellet died in El Dorado in 1895. In 1938, the U.S. Navy launched the U.S.S. Ellet in honor of Ellet’s service in the Civil War. The destroyer made several tours in World War II, before it was decommissioned in 1945.
Ellet’s Opera House
Ellet was the “principal mover” in the construction of Ellet’s Opera House. When it was completed in October 1884, the El Dorado Times reported that “Gen. Ellet ought to be the proudest man in town over the building of such a useful and beautiful structure”. Like many opera houses, the first floor of Ellet’s was designed to house businesses.
In 1884, the first floor was occupied by a “carriage repository” and clothing store. There was an agricultural implements and drug store on the first floor in 1887 and 1892. By 1899, the west half had been converted to a newspaper office and post office. The shops on the first floor changed often in the first half of the 20th Century, when uses ranged from a pool hall to millinery to a hardware store.
The second floor continued as an opera house through the early 20th Century, changing names to “McGinnis Opera House” between 1912 and 1917. By 1923, it was no longer identified as an opera house. In 1946, the second floor was occupied by a dance hall. Over the years, the building hosted numerous productions and community events. Among the most notable was an 1897 production of “Six Cups of Chocolate” to raise money for the construction of the Carnegie Library. Among the more bizarre events at the opera house was the 1904 arrest of murder Walter Jones for which the police interrupted a play. Although the first floor remained vacant for decades, many of its original features remained unaltered.
The building is currently owned by David Wernli and Dick Morris. Due to severe structural problems, major renovations to the building were required. These renovations were completed in 2014. The exterior was restored to its original historic look and the interior houses both modern fashionable apartments and commercial space.