Piper’s Opera House and the Virginia Benevolent Association

This historic venue in Virginia City, Nevada offered a space for women during the early nineteenth century to express their creativity. Whether it was public plays or private theatrics, the auditorium was a place where women could escape daily life and participate in meetings dedicated to their unique interests with friends.

The building that currently sits on B Street in Virginia City, Nevada is the third iteration of Piper’s Opera House. Wealthy entrepreneur John Piper financed the city’s first opera house in 1863, but the structure burned to the ground in the Great Fire of 1875. Three years later in 1878, Piper funded construction for a new opera house on the same land, yet it also burned down in 1883. To raise money for yet another opera house, Piper rented Cooper Hall and began presenting various entertainments within only days after the 1883 fire. Piper’s (third) Opera House opened its doors on March 6, 1885, and John Piper organized a town dance on the same day to celebrate its completion.

This final version of Piper’s Opera House, built into the eastern slope of Mount Davidson, has a stone foundation and masonry façade with wooden shiplap siding and asymmetrical arched windows. Inside is an auditorium smaller than a full basketball court, a sloped stage which makes the entire area visible from any seat, a box office, and Piper’s private apartment. Colorful and textured wallpapers adorn the auditorium interior, and wooden flooring runs throughout. The opera house still bears its original sign, featured above the entrance doors. In its early history, the building served as a performing venue, meeting ground, and training facility for boxers.

Piper’s three Opera Houses also provided acceptable public forums for women to participate in amateur and professional theater. The Virginia Benevolent Association produced a concert in 1875 to raise funds to help the poor prepare for winter. Club women provided much of the entertainment. Members recited from Hiawatha, sang “Good Night My Sweet,” and played the hornpipe. One club affiliate reminisced that the opera house provided an outlet for women to express themselves in a safe space, whether in public or privately among a few women. Piper’s Opera House was an essential location for Virginia City’s women to discover and develop creative expression.

The Virginia Benevolent Association disbanded in the early-twentieth century, but Piper’s Opera House still hosts events today. Theater production is ongoing, and Piper’s is also a popular venue for local events like weddings, ceremonies, birthdays, and holidays. Preservationists secured the opera house a place on the National Register of Historic Places in 1997.

Images

Piper’s auditorium
Piper’s auditorium Inside the main auditorium featuring original wallpaper, ca. 2015. Source:

EPoelzl. “Piper’s Opera House Interior, Virginia City, Nevada.” EPoelzl (pseud.), [DATE]. Via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0). https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Piper%27s_Opera_House_interior,_Virginia_City,_Nevada.jpg.

Opera house cross-section
Opera house cross-section Sketch of building design showing the auditorium, Piper’s apartment, and the box office. Source:

Historic American Buildings Survey Creator, Lily Langtry, Edwin Booth, Henry Ward Beecher, Enrico Caruso, Lillian Russel, Houdini, et al., Kerrigan, Robert W, and N L McAfee, photographer. Piper’s Opera House, B & Union Streets, Virginia City, Storey County, NV. Nevada Virginia City Storey County. Documentation compiled after 1933. Courtesy of the Library of Congress. https://www.loc.gov/resource/hhh.nv0004.sheet/?sp=6.

The opera house from outside
The opera house from outside Front-facing view from B Street showing shiplap siding and arched windows, ca. 2008. Source:

“Piper’s Opera House.” Jimmy Emerson, October 14, 2008. Via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0). https://www.flickr.com/photos/auvet/2959334995.

B Street, 1933
B Street, 1933 View from B Street, ca. 1933. Source:

Historic American Buildings Survey, Creator, Lily Langtry, Edwin Booth, Henry Ward Beecher, Enrico Caruso, Lillian Russel, Houdini, et al., Kerrigan, Robert W, and N L McAfee, photographer. Piper’s Opera House, B & Union Streets, Virginia City, Storey County, NV. Nevada Virginia City Storey County. Documentation compiled after 1933. Photograph. Courtesy of the Library of Congress. https://www.loc.gov/resource/hhh.nv0004.photos/?sp=3.

Piper’s in disrepair
Piper’s in disrepair View from B Street ca. 1933. Notice the condition of the shiplap siding, which has since been restored, and compare it to the color photograph taken in 2008. Source:

Historic American Buildings Survey, Creator, Lily Langtry, Edwin Booth, Henry Ward Beecher, Enrico Caruso, Lillian Russel, Houdini, et al., Kerrigan, Robert W, and N L McAfee, photographer. Piper’s Opera House, B & Union Streets, Virginia City, Storey County, NV. Nevada Virginia City Storey County. Documentation compiled after 1933. Photograph. Courtesy of the Library of Congress. https://www.loc.gov/resource/hhh.nv0004.photos/?sp=1.

Location

12 B St, Virginia City, NV 89440

Metadata

Amy Megowan, Northern Arizona University, “Piper’s Opera House and the Virginia Benevolent Association,” Intermountain Histories, accessed February 22, 2024, https://www.intermountainhistories.org/items/show/607.