Copyright 2003 By Bob Hibbs
Saturday December 13, 2003 

Saturday Postcard 223: The Coldren Opera House

opera house

Erected on a site opened when an 1872 fire destroyed the stylish Clinton House hotel, 
the Coldren Opera House pictured here represented the summit of cultural life 
in Iowa City for a quarter century. The image is from a 1900 bank certificate of deposit.


By Bob Hibbs


Known during most of its era as “the Coldren,” the Grand Opera House shared a downtown Iowa City building with the Iowa City State Bank during the last quarter of the 19th century and early in the 20th century. The Opera Saloon was next door.

The nostalgic aura of both institutions is gone, although their home still exists in dramatically-altered form as the Savings and Loan Building which occupies the southeast quadrant of the Clinton-College streets intersection.

It succeeded the Clinton House hotel after an 1872 fire destroyed the hotel, considered the finest of its era. The Clinton was owned by local bankers Ezekiel Clark and Thomas Hill, who also planned and built its successor.

The new edifice was designed by Des Moines architect Robert Finkbine whose later gift of land expanded the University of Iowa far westward and bore his name. Its exterior has been refaced with limestone, the balcony removed and the corner entrance to the bank closed over, giving today’s surviving structure a sharply different appearance.

The old-fashioned playhouse and its banking companion were recalled recently when the author acquired a $25 certificate of deposit issued in 1900 by ICSB. It is easily confused with today’s Iowa State Bank, but it has no connection, nor any modern successor.

The bank CD was redeemed in installments; first in the amount of $5, followed by two of $10 each, the last paid May 15, 1900, just 27 days after the initial deposit date.

No interest rate is stated, nor is any specific duration, as is done on similar instruments today. It clearly was payable on demand, although specifically endorsed as “Not Subject To Check.” It was issued to Henry C. Johnson by bank cashier R.A. Korab.

The drawing published today appears as a postage-stamp-sized image in the top right corner of that CD.

The playhouse occupied the two floors above the bank from its completion during 1877 until the Coldren was closed in 1912, economically executed by advent of motion pictures crowned by the opening of other venues, particularly UI’s Macbride Hall in 1908 and a more modern playhouse, the Englert Theatre, in 1912.

In addition to legitimate stage presentations, the Englert also offered motion pictures.

The Coldren name comes from its second owner, John Coldren who died in 1892. He was a widely respected Johnson County sheriff from 1877 to 1882 who joined Clark and Hill in banking. Son Stevens Coldren later established the long-lived “Old Ladies’ Home” on Clark Street which bore his mother’s name, Mary O. Coldren.

During the 1890s more than 350 repertory shows played back and forth across America, bringing entertainment to any community located along a railroad, including Iowa City.

The Coldren featured top performers of the era and housed such stellar local events as the formal inaugurations of UI presidents, as well as commencements and class plays.

A long-remembered spoof of the UI faculty produced by students as an elaborate burlesque at the Coldren featured a factious George Thrasher, a thinly-veiled reference to UI’s fifth president, George Thacher, who served during the 1870s.

After service for public events, the Coldren space was remodeled for use by the Triangle Club, a private UI faculty group, until that club moved into new quarters in the Iowa Memorial Union in April 1927.

Subsequent renovations of the bank building, particularly one in 1940, produced its modern incarnation which was named for First Federal Savings and Loan which occupied the main floor from 1940 until 1981.

Like nearly every local building of its time, the opera house suffered having nearly every pane of glass in its many windows broken by the hail storm of 5 p.m. Saturday, May 5, 1894. The hail stones were reportedly three inches in diameter.

Next Saturday: Grand Wood, an Iowa City institution.

Bob Hibbs collects local postcards and researches history related to them. 

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