In 1881–82 rancher and businessman William Henry Dickens built the Dickens Opera House at the corner of Third and Main Streets in downtown Longmont. The two-story opera house, with Dickens’s Farmers National Bank on the first floor and an auditorium on the second, served as an important community hub in Longmont from the late nineteenth century through the 1920s.
After continued use throughout the twentieth century, the Dickens Opera House was abandoned in 1978. It stood vacant until 1986, when it reopened with a restaurant on the first floor and a remodeled auditorium on the second. The building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1987. Today, the locally owned and operated Dickens Tavern occupies the first floor, while the second-story auditorium continues to host live entertainment.
William Dickens in Longmont
Born at sea in the early 1840s while his family was emigrating from England, William Henry Dickens came to Colorado in 1860, at age seventeen. He filed for a 160-acre homestead near the small community of Burlington, on the south side of St. Vrain Creek. In 1871 Seth Terry, a representative of the Chicago-Colorado Colony Company, came to the area looking for potential town sites. A few months later, the colony platted the town of Longmont around the confluence of St. Vrain and Left Hand Creeks. Thanks to successful irrigation development, Longmont quickly developed into an agricultural center along the Front Range.
Meanwhile, Dickens had enlarged his homestead and prepared to make a series of investments in the new town. In 1873 he purchased the site for his opera house, but construction did not begin until 1881. Dickens himself hauled many of the opera house’s first bricks, and the building was completed in early 1882. The two-story building was designed in the nineteenth-century commercial style, with an exterior cornice that breaks into a peak on its Main Street facade.
The first floor, with its row of street-level storefront windows, held Dickens’s Farmers National Bank, as well as offices for the Longmont Ledger. The opera house’s opening performance, on February 2, 1882, was a play called The Greek Twins, written by local author Will Holland. Its first opera, “Penelope,” debuted on February 12. The Dickens’s long tenure as Longmont’s cultural hub also began that year, as the local McPherson Post of the Grand Army of the Republic made the building its headquarters.
Early Years at the Dickens
In the 1880s and 1890s, the Dickens Opera House hosted such plays as Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Ten Nights in a Bar-room, as well as concerts, political rallies, and meetings of local organizations, such as the Longmont Christian Temperance Union. The first stage sets came from Denver’s Sixteenth Street Theatre. The opera house also hosted spelling bees, vaudeville acts, minstrel shows, and boxing and wrestling matches. The McPherson Post drew beyond-capacity crowds for its monthly campfire festivities, evenings of dinner and dancing that went on until the early morning. In September 1898, during the Spanish-American War, the Denver Soldiers’ Aid Society hosted a benefit at the Dickens, with proceeds going toward the group’s work caring for about fifty families of soldiers fighting overseas.
The opera house also received its first major renovations in these early years. In 1884 two dressing rooms were built in the auditorium, and the building received indoor plumbing.
After surviving a fire in 1905 that destroyed the adjacent Masonic Temple, the Dickens Opera House continued to put on operas, plays, and other performances. In 1916 it hosted D.W. Griffith’s white nationalist film Birth of a Nation. Around that time the Farmers National Bank moved to a new location on Fourth and Main Streets.
By then, however, events at the opera house were overshadowed by one of early Longmont’s worst tragedies. In 1915 an elderly William Dickens was reading in his home when a rifle bullet burst through the window, killing him. Although Dickens’s son Rienzi was initially found guilty of murdering his father in 1916, he was freed by a jury in Greeley in 1921, and the crime was never solved.
After Dickens’s death, the opera house building passed to the John H. Dickens Trust, and then eventually was owned and managed by William Dickens’s grandson, Jack, and his sister, Ida Marie Stark.
In 1957 Alcoholics Anonymous began holding regular meetings at the opera house, and in the 1960s several new businesses moved into the first floor, including George’s Third Avenue Barber Shop and the Red Door Tavern.
In 1975 local theater producer Richard Sharp leased the Dickens Opera House auditorium. During Sharp’s three years as operator, the opera house put on thirty-eight performances, twenty-four of which were directed by Sharp. In 1978 Jack Dickens and Ida Stark sold the Dickens Opera House to Boulder residents Albert Fettig and Thomas Suitts for $150,000.
Fettig and Suitts apparently had plans to remodel the Dickens, but nothing came of them. Shortly thereafter, the property was acquired by developer Roger Pomainville, who spent about $1.5 million remodeling the first floor, which he converted into a restaurant, and the second-story auditorium. Looking to maintain the building’s Victorian atmosphere, Pomainville restored the first floor’s original porcelain floors and iron bar railings and crafted a large mahogany bar in the late nineteenth-century style. He also converted the old bank vault into a wine cellar.
In 1986 local restaurateurs Mike Shea and Fred Johnston leased the building’s first floor and opened the Dickens Restaurant. The restaurant continued the building’s long social tradition, hosting events such as the 1986 Mayor’s Conference, in which local business owners were invited to discuss various concerns with city officials. Meanwhile, the auditorium was leased by the nonprofit Dickens Opera House Association, which continued to book performances throughout the 1980s and 1990s.
In 2009 Sean and Lynn Owens leased the opera house building and opened the Dickens Tavern on the first floor. Among other renovations, the Owenses scraped off the building’s popcorn ceiling to expose the original wood, and added a marble bar top and etched glass doors. With Sean Owens as head chef, the Dickens Tavern now offers a menu of well-reviewed comfort food, including meat loaf and mac and cheese. The couple continues to book performances for the remodeled upstairs auditorium.
The Dickens, one of only several nineteenth-century opera houses remaining in Colorado, may also be holding on to more of its past than many expect. The Owenses, as well as patrons and employees, have reported numerous paranormal experiences, including the sighting of a young girl dubbed the “Dickens Darling.”