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The Manchester Opera House fades into the past

During the 1880s and 1890s it seemed that the Manchester Opera House’s glory would last forever. Its talented manager, Edward W. Harrington Jr., prospered along with the playhouse. An editor of the Portsmouth Herald newspaper wrote on March 1, 1899, “I saw ‘Ed’ Harrington in town Monday evening. He was looking smooth and quite satisfied with life. Well he may be, for he has given his city a lot of fine shows this season and has been rewarded with generous patronage.”

However, by this time the Manchester Opera House was feeling financial strains. Hosting large traveling theater and opera companies was becoming a losing venture, as the appetite for these types of productions was on the decline. In December 1900, the Portsmouth Herald quoted Harrington as saying that he would no longer book repertory theater companies, with the exception of Corse Payson’s troupe from Boston which was a favorite with local audiences. The Opera House continued to present stage shows, but it was facing a losing battle against its new competition — the motion picture.

In 1906 the Opera House began to be leased out as a movie theater. In 1938 the Manchester Opera House Company sold the theater to the New Hampshire Amusement Company, and the stage was cut back to make room for additional seats for moviegoers. Local historian L. Ashton Thorpe was on the Opera Company’s board of directors at the time of the sale. In his 1939 book, “Manchester of Yesterday,” he wrote wistfully, “The scenery, long since painted by artists with a reputation in their profession, and which used to be stacked against the red brick walls, was gone. The stage was barren, but in the musty atmosphere the lone visitor was conscious of invisible personalities, and in imagination he saw the ghosts of other days.”

The theater, renamed the Strand, functioned as a regular cinema, showing first run films into the late 1960s. In the 1970s the Strand sometimes showed X-rated movies, until its doors finally closed in late 1977. Its entryway still exists as an outdoor pass-through in the center of the Harrington-Smith Block. The word “Strand” is still there, outlined in blue and black tile letters on the floor of the walkway.At some point the upstairs rooms in the Harrington-Smith Block began to be leased out as apartments, and the storefront façades were altered to suit modern tastes. In around 1950 the building, and the Mirror Block (also called the Old Post Office Block) next door, were painted white above the first floors. The two buildings became known as the Machinist’s Block, named after the famous Machinist department store that operated in the Mirror Block from 1941 to 1982.

On Saturday morning, March 9, 1985, a terrible fire devastated the Harrington-Smith Block and the Strand Theatre. Manchester firefighters were assisted by crews from Concord, Nashua, and Hooksett with more than 200 personnel and 20 vehicles involved. The fire took the life of a female tenant, and 60 people were left homeless.

Ironically, plans were being developed at that time to renovate the block and the theater. After the fire, developer Mark Stebbins and his company, Stebbins Associates Inc., remained committed to the project. The theater and the west ell of the block were a complete loss and were demolished, but the remainder of the building, including the east ell, were rehabilitated. The beauty of the red-pressed brick, terra cotta, and other late 19th century building materials was revealed again when the white paint was removed. The storefronts were remodeled to reproduce their original charming appearance, with cast iron columns. As many of the original features as possible were retained, including decorative moldings, staircases, bannisters, fireplaces, and pressed metal ceilings. Forty-one luxury apartments were created in the Harrington-Smith Block. The adjoining 1876 Mirror Block was also restored as part of this $6.6 million project, which was completed in 1986.

Both the Harrington-Smith Block and the Mirror Block are listed on the National Register of Historic Places in recognition of their historical and architectural significance. In 1998 the buildings were sold to Grossman Companies of Quincy, Massachusetts. The current owner, Red Oak Apartment Homes Inc., acquired the properties in 2003.


Next Week: The Harrington family story continues..

Aurore Eaton is a historian and writer in Manchester, e-mail her at