Built in 1864 by merchants Joseph Assion and John Ruffing, the City Hall building is a commanding structure in downtown Delphi. It was built with stores on the ground floor, residences on the second level, and a spacious hall on the third floor intended for public gatherings including balls, concerts, ceremonies, theater, and other entertainments. One of the first events held there was a dance on June 27, 1865, in honor of Company B, 86th Indiana Volunteers, and other soldiers returning from the Civil War.
By the early 1900s, other entertainments and venues were vying for patrons and an aging third-floor hall became less attractive—especially with only one egress. In 1914, the Opera House was closed by the fire inspector and never reopened. Over the ensuing years, its spacious hall filled with storage crates and paraphernalia from the retail stores on the lower levels; its fine plaster, painted back drop, and wall hangings became damaged by water seeping through its leaky roof; and pigeons took center stage.
In 1882, John Lathrope, partnered with John Ruffing to remodel the third floor into a grand opera house. Lathrope was a renowned cornetist, and his Silver Cornet Band was a musical institution in Delphi and the surrounding area. He also operated a bakery and restaurant in the City Hall building and had a reputation for never doing anything half-way.
On April 7, 1882, the Lathrope and Ruffing Opera House had its grand opening, featuring the Litta Grand Opera Company with the famous soprano Marie Litta as prima donna, performing to a packed house of nearly 500.
For the next two decades the opera house was a heavily-used performance venue with travelling theater and minstrel companies, lecturers, concerts, local dramatic presentations—even graduation ceremonies.
Born in Penzance England, John Lathrope immigrated to the U.S. in 1851, living first near Boston, Massachusetts. Already an accomplished musician at age 10, John travelled to the Lafayette area via canal, his father having secured passage providing entertainment for the passengers and crew. His family worked on several small farms in the area before moving to Delphi in 1858.
John served in the Civil War as a bugler and leader of the Ninth Volunteer Regimental Band. He ran several retail establishments in Delphi, but music was his first love. Lathrope was a renown cornetist and band leader conducting the Lathrope Silver Cornet Band for many years. In 1882, he opened the Lathrope & Ruffing Opera House on the third floor of the City Hall building and was its manager for many years.
Debuting in Paris in 1878, Marie Litta quickly won both acclaim from the music world and the hearts of her audiences. Frequently compared to Jenny Lind for the quality of her voice, her career was short-lived as she fell ill while touring in 1883. She returned to her home in Bloomington, Illinois, where she died at the age of 27.
Hoosier poet James Whitcomb Riley gave at least six performances in the Lathrope & Ruffing Opera House, the first in December, 1882. Riley frequented Delphi having made good friends here, including Dr. Wycliffe Smith. Several poems about the area were penned by Riley including "From Delphi to Camden" and "On the Banks O' Deer Crick."
This was the picture when the Delphi Preservation Society acquired two-thirds of the City Hall building in the mid 1990s. It took years of effort to stabilize the roof and clear out the debris left by decades of neglect. In August 2005, at the 150th Old Settlers Celebration in Delphi, the Tonsil Klackers barbershop quartet became the first group to perform in the Opera House since 1914. More than 200 people climbed the stairs in 90-degree plus heat and, in seatings of 50-60 at a time, cheered as the music rang through the old hall. This proved to us that there was enough interest in the community to proceed with the opera house project.
The Tonsil Klackers were invited back for a repeat performance at the 2006 Old Settlers Celebration with another ringing endorsement from the 200-plus people attending. DPS is now actively engaged in trying to restore this gem to Delphi's crown. In May 2006, a structural analysis of the City Hall building was completed to make sure that restoration was a viable option. A matching grant from the Historic Preservation Fund of the U.S. Dept. of Interior's National Park Service was secured from the Division of Historic Preservation and Archaeology of Indiana's Department of Natural Resources to renovate the façade of the City Hall building.
In 2007, the building got a facelift—a missing cornice section was replaced; the existing cornice and external balcony brackets was repaired, scraped, and painted; the windows were repaired or rebuilt; and the vinyl, wood shake, and metal awnings were replaced by historic canvas awnings. To plan for the restoration of the rest of the City Hall building and the Opera House, Delphi Preservation Society enlisted the services of KJG Architecture, Inc. of West Lafayette. Working with the Opera House task force, KJG has developed schematic designs for the City Hall building, the opera house, and an addition that will house the elevator, mechanical, and electrical systems to support the entire building. This planning process has been completed and the Society is now initiating fundraising activities for the restoration.
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