A Cultural Resource for the Ages: Wilmington’s Thalian Hall

Wilmington's Thalian Hall (Source: iStock / Darwin Brandis)

Nestled between the Cape Fear River and the mighty Atlantic Coast is Wilmington, North Carolina, famous for its historic district, beach scene, and thriving restaurants, galleries, and shops. In the midst of it all is Thalian Hall, part city hall, part performing arts center, and a big part of the town that loves her. Thalian Hall has been at the heart of Wilmington for over 150 years and is still as vibrant today as it was in centuries past.

Early history

Even when first conceived, Thalian Hall was always going to have a big role to play. The building was built in the late 1850s as a multi-purpose structure, housing town government offices, the library, and a 1,000-seat “opera house.” Designed by one of America’s foremost 19th-century theater architects, John Montague Trimble, the hall is an imposing white brick, five-bay structure that includes both neo-classical and late-Victorian architectural design elements. Its front façade includes a massive portico housing four grand Corinthian columns ­– underscoring its unique and outsized role in the community.

Though Wilmington enjoyed local theater performances since the late 18th century, Thalian Hall soon took things up a significant notch by attracting national touring artists. First opened in 1858, the theater was in near constant use throughout the Civil War and beyond. Artists who appeared in the Hall in the 19th and early 20th centuries included Lillian Russell, Buffalo Bill Cody, John Phillip Sousa, Joseph Jefferson, and Maurice Barrymore, among others. Between major performances, the theater was used for local community events, such as amateur concerts, recitals, meetings, graduations, exhibitions — even roller skating.  The other side of the building, meanwhile, was used to meet the municipal needs of the town and region.

20th century boom, bust, and boom

During the early 20th century, the theater went through a series of renovations, including the addition of its ornate proscenium arch and electric stage lights. With its newly minted, massive central chandelier (dripping with crystals); red, gold, and green interiors; and serpentine-like balconies, the theater’s lavish décor was all the rage.

Thalian Hall's lavish interiors (Source: Thalian Hall)
Thalian Hall’s lavish interiors (Source: Thalian Hall)

By the end of the 1920s and the advent of the Great Depression, however, national performance touring declined. Indeed, the last major production of record to play Thalian Hall was the 1928 Ziegfeld Follies. Though the theater still hosted local events, it fell into disrepair and was nearly demolished in 1930s and ’40s. Still, the Wilmington community managed to keep it open despite hard times.

Fast-forward to the 1970s. In the midst of a modest renovation, Thalian Hall caught fire. Though damage was not extensive, renovation was waylaid. Interestingly, the fire increased local and national interest in the theater and in its historical significance. Through the redoubled efforts of the community, renovation plans were expanded and the theater was added to the National Register for Historic Places. Once the restoration was completed in 1975, Thalian Hall experienced a renaissance of sorts, with dramatic increases in professional artist appearances, community use, and audience attendance.

These trends continued through the 1980s, and enabled the community to build support for a massive expansion of the theater and its stage house, as well as enlarge the theater complex with additional performance facilities in 1988. Thalian Hall thus became the Thalian Hall Center for the Performing Arts.

Part of today's Thalian Hall theater complex (Source: Inspirock)
Part of today’s Thalian Hall Center for the Performing Arts (Source: Inspirock)

Today’s Thalian Hall

These days, Thalian Hall is one of the most frequently used facilities of its kind. The theater complex includes three venues and hosts 422 events annually, attended by some 80,000 people – an attendance figure that has doubled over the last 20 years. The theater still plays host to community programing as well as national touring shows through its Main Street Attractions series, and supports local schools with educational film programming for children.

For more information about the theater, visit Thalian Hall online. Also, check out Images of America: Thalian Hall, written by the theater’s current and longstanding Executive Director, Anthony Ravenback.