The Sterling Opera House in Derby, Connecticut

Copyright Steven Bley

Copyright Steven Bley

Historic preservation.  It is a controversial topic in small towns across the United States.  How does a small community effectively and efficiently preserve the architecture of its past?  Architecture that cannot be duplicated.  Architecture that tells the story of the people who have lived and died in a community, helped build a community from the ground up.  It is a tall order for any community on a limited budget.  In this era of stagnant economies, the task becomes almost herculean.  Local preservationists must come to a building’s rescue.  Today’s photo shows one such case: The Sterling Opera House in Derby, Connecticut.  The image comes to us courtesy of New Jersey-based photographer Steven Bley.  Bley is particularly interested in abandoned places and has some great shots on his site, located at and on his Flickr page at

The Sterling Opera House is not quite a lost place, but at one time it was heading in that direction.  The opera house opened 125 years ago this month, April 2, 1889.  The building served as an arts venue until 1933.  The first two floors served as the community’s city hall and police station until 1965.  In 1968, it became the first site in Connecticut listed for historic preservation status.  Local preservation efforts from the 70’s through the 90’s raised enough funds and awareness to completely restore the exterior of the building.  The opera house hosted some luminaries in its day: bandleader John Philip Sousa, comedian Red Skelton, magician Harry Houdini, actor Donald O’Connor, aviator Amelia Earhart, and no less than three Barrymores: Lionel, John, and Ethel.  According to some locals, including town dignitaries, the opera house still hosts a few residents in the form of ghosts.  Locals have reported mysterious slamming doors and strange sensations in the building.

The sign in the image promotes 19th century French strongman C.A. Sampson.  Sampson was famously defeated in a show of strength against strongman Eugen Sandow.  According to news accounts at the time, Sandow substituted materials prior to the exhibition which made him look much stronger than Sampson.  Sampson walked off stage in protest.  Sampson was a also a writer, penning “Strength: A Treatise on the Development and Use of Muscle” in 1895.  The book advocated, among other things, deep breathing, walking, cold baths and the use of elastic bands tied around the muscles during weight training.  Sandow is by far the more well-known of the two men.  Sandow, born in Germany, measured Greek statuary to build his physique up to the standard of the “the Grecian ideal.”  It is with good reason that Sandow is often called “the father of modern bodybuilding.”

Derby continues to do some body modification on the opera house itself.  Jean Falbo-Sosnovich of The New Haven Register reported in early March that the city received a $20,000 grant from The Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation.  The money will help the city apply for a state tax credit that would significantly lower the cost of continued restoration.  Preserving the past often comes with a high price tag.

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