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Fire gutted Gainesville's once-proud opera house

POSTED: December 6, 2009 1:00 a.m.

An opera house once flourished in Gainesville on the downtown square where Christopher’s is situated today at the corner of Washington and Bradford streets.

Jim Hunt, whose name remains on Hunt Towers across the square, formerly the Dixie-Hunt Hotel, built and operated the opera house, bringing nationally known talent to perform. A local newspaper boasted in 1899, " ... no other opera house in Georgia, except the Grand in Atlanta, has anything equal to this. It will be brilliantly lighted by electricity and heated by two hot air furnaces." Interior furnishings alone cost $6,000.

The original building had been built in 1885 by Daniel M. Stringer and sold to Hunt in 1895. He added a third story, considered then a "skyscraper" as it hovered over other buildings around what was then a tiny square.

The first attraction opened Sept. 22, 1899, with the Lincoln Center’s naval drama, "Remember the Maine," based on the sinking of the U.S. ship in Havana harbor in 1898, killing more than 250 sailors and precipitating the Spanish-American War.

Leading up to Christmas that same year, the Lee Stock Company provided entertainment, including comedians and plays. Admission ranged from a dime to 30 cents for matinees. Grand Opera came to the Hunt Opera House in January 1900. Internationally famous singers were on the program.

The opera house operated for many years, but was at ground zero for one of Gainesville’s worst fires in April 1925. Late on a Sunday afternoon, a small fire inside the front door quickly became an inferno, spreading to other buildings up Washington Street and down Bradford.

In the fire’s path, it took the State Theater, which had recently opened on Bradford, C.R. Hammond’s jewelry store, Stringer Brothers’ candy shop, a barber shop, seamstress shop, fruit store, dry cleaners and offices of the Georgia Railway and Power Co., predecessor to Georgia Power Co. Smith Brothers Café, part of the opera building, burned along with a harness shop, dry goods store, military store and dentist’s office.

The fire was so fierce buildings across Washington and Bradford streets also suffered damage, including a grocery, furniture store and men’s shop. The flames’ reflection in the windows of the Citizens Bank across the street caused a bystander to throw a brick through a window to allow water to be directed into the building, but there was no fire.

Residents along Green and East Washington streets became so frightened of the flames roaring high into the air they began to remove their belongings from their houses. One home was affected, the Bailey residence, whose roof caught fire, but volunteers dragged a hose atop it and extinguished the flames.

Atlanta, Buford, Winder and Cornelia firefighters responded to calls for help, though the fire was too far advanced by the time some of them arrived. Water supplies from New Holland and Gainesville mills supplemented Gainesville’s. A special Southern Railway train rushed Atlanta firefighters and equipment to the scene.

The Hunt Opera House, valued at $35,000, had but $2,500 insurance coverage. The Stringer Brothers’ building on Washington was valued at $30,000. They had operated a theater on the street in the early 1900s, and it burned in 1917. After the 1925 fire, the State Theater reopened in a few weeks.

The Stringers continued in the candy business, operating for many years in a building on North Bradford Street that now houses Antiquities in Time Clocks.

Because stores frantically moved what merchandise they could onto the streets during the 1925 fire, many lost goods to thieves despite the presence of about 50 Riverside Military Academy cadets. Boy Scouts and American Legionnaires.

Hunt did not rebuild his opera house. Instead, he sold the lot to Henry Estes for $6,675. Henry Estes was the son of the founder of Estes dry goods store, George P. Estes. The store had operated at various locations around the square since 1888. Estes moved to its new location at Washington and Bradford after building where the opera house had stood.

Another fire in 1967 destroyed Estes department store on the same spot where the Hunt Opera House had burned. Neighboring businesses this time suffered only minor damage.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. His column appears Sundays and on gainesvilletimes.com.



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