1886 Stafford Opera House
When it was originally built in 1886 by cattleman R. E. Stafford, the R. E. Stafford Bank and Opera House housed a bank and dry goods store on the first floor and theater venue on the second floor. The cornerstone displays a steer head and lariat, as ranching was Mr. Stafford’s main source of income. Although called an opera house, no evidence of an opera ever being performed on stage has been uncovered. The “opera house” designation was common for live theaters during this time period.
The Stafford Opera House’s Second Empire-style design is attributed to architect Nicholas Joseph Clayton, an advocate of the High Victorian movement. Mr. Clayton drew inspiration from the classic architectural styles of the era to create elaborate ornamentation. The building is constructed of brick with iron in the foundation. The bricks were handmade on the Quinn Walker Place at Skull Creek, near Columbus. All of the metal work for the interior columns, thresholds, and lintels were cast at the Galveston Foundry in Galveston. The Opera House’s unique architectural details include horizontal brick banding, two-colored brickwork, inset brick panels, and three-part window compositions. The second floor theater is spanned with heavy timber trusses. Gracefully curved metal canopies at the second floor level were an original part of the building.
The Grand Hall main floor originally sat 600 people with another 400 fitting in the balcony. The 1886 Stafford Opera House is the largest flat-floored opera house in Texas and is the only flat-floored opera house still in existence in the state. The original cost of the building was $50,000. The curtain, wings, and stage equipment cost an additional $10,000. The Stafford family home sat directly next door to the Opera House. It was said that Mr. Stafford could watch performances on stage from his bedroom window.
On July 7, 1890 Mr. Stafford and his younger brother John attended a ceremony to celebrate the laying of the cornerstone for the new county courthouse. After the ceremony, Mr. Stafford got into an argument with city marshal Larkin Hope. The argument ended when Mr. Hope and his brother Marion shot and killed both Stafford brothers. The Stafford murders only worsened the ongoing Townsend-Stafford Feud in Columbus as the Hope brothers were members of the Townsend family. The Stafford-Townsend Feud is Texas’ longest running feud, lasting from 1871 to 1911.
The last performance at the Stafford Opera House during that era was in 1916. Mrs. Stafford sold the building to Mr. Guilmartin, the owner of the local Ford Motor Company dealership. Mr. Guilmartin moved his dealership to the first floor of the building. It was rumored that someone killed his prized bird dog but no one would admit to the crime. To punish the town, he tore down the Opera House stage curtain and put it over his hog pen.
In addition to the Ford dealership, the building has served as an arena for basketball games and boxing matches as well as a roller skating rink. During the latter part of World War II, private apartments were built in the stage area of the second floor.
In 1972, the Magnolia Homes Tour, Inc. (now the Columbus Historical Preservation Trust, Inc.) bought the property for $30,000 and began restoration efforts. Eighteen years and $1.3 million later, the Stafford Opera House was lovingly restored to its former glory and rededicated in 1990.
Tours of the 1886 Stafford Opera House may be arranged by contacting the Columbus Chamber of Commerce at 979-732-8385 or via email.