Many cities, it seems, have a particular iconic building that defines the skyline. Lancaster’s, of course, would be the Griest Building - the only skyscraper here prior to the construction of the Marriott hotel at the Lancaster County Convention Center.
But if there’s a building that defines not the skyline but the city itself - its history, its culture, its heart - you could make a pretty good argument that the Fulton Opera House, now known as the Fulton Theatre, serves that role.
From community meetings to vaudeville shows, national jazz bands to local theater, classical orchestras to blockbuster movies, locals and tourists alike have packed the hall to watch just about anything that might appear on a stage or screen - for more than 150 years.
The beautiful theater we know today wasn’t the first building to occupy that location at 12 N. Prince St., though - in 1737, four decades before the American Revolution, Lancaster’s jail was built on that spot.
That Colonial-era prison was the site of the infamous 1763 massacre of a group of Conestoga Indians by a vigilante gang called the Paxton Boys. This grim event reverberated through the Colonies, inspiring condemnation from Ben Franklin, among others.
Though the prison was razed to make way for the Fulton, built in 1852, the exterior wall of the jail courtyard still stands, serving as the back wall of the theater.
The theater, originally named Fulton Hall - after Robert Fulton, steam-engine pioneer and Lancaster County native - was conceived by Lancaster businessman and civic leader Christopher Hager. Philadelphia architect Samuel Sloan, who also designed Lancaster County Courthouse, was commissioned to create the building.
(A wooden statue of Fulton stood for decades in the second-floor alcove above the marquee. Today, that statue stands - fully restored - in the lobby, while a fiberglass-cast replica occupies the outdoor alcove.)
After changing hands several times through the second half of the 1800s, the theater underwent a major renovation after the Civil War. Edwin Forrest Durang remodeled the interior into a full-fledged performance venue for an 1873 re-opening, at which point Fulton Hall was renamed Fulton Opera House.
Come the dawn of the 20th century, increased competition from other local entertainment venues spurred another huge renovation project for the “Grand Old Lady of Prince Street.” Local architect C. Emlen Urban redesigned the interior in a neoclassical style.
Urban’s renovation involved gutting the entire building, enlarging the stage, adding an upper gallery, box seats and the grand staircase of the lobby, and countless other changes - all leading to yet another grand re-opening in 1904.
As touring theater shows waned with the rise of movies, the Fulton established its own stock company, which, by 1920, was putting on burlesque shows, eventually leading to the arrest of then-owner Charles Yecker on charges related to indecent entertainment.
In later years, live entertainment became unsustainable at the Fulton, and it operated as a movie house through the middle of the 20th century.
Business was poor, however, and the wrecking ball loomed in the Fulton’s future.
In 1962, concerned citizens saved the theater by raising money to purchase the building as a nonprofit foundation, and the stage was once again home to local and regional live theater. In 1969, the Fulton was recognized as a National Historic Landmark - one of only eight theaters in the nation to receive that honor.
The final piece of the Fulton’s evolution thus far occurred in 1995 - a massive $9.5 million renovation and expansion project that restored the stunning interior to its vintage glory, as well as installing larger seats, reducing capacity from 900 to 684.
Further, expansions to the north and south allowed for the addition of a two-story atrium lobby, a new box office, an elevator and more. Backstage areas were also expanded, updated and refurbished, and new sound and lighting systems were installed.
Over the many decades of the Fulton Opera House’s existence, its stage has hosted a seemingly endless array of celebrity performers: Sarah Bernhardt, Mark Twain, Debbie Reynolds, Lily Tomlin, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, W.C. Fields - all the way up to Lancaster County’s own Jonathan Groff.
The history of the Fulton Opera House is truly a comeback story - glory days, followed by lean times, then a successful rebirth - and today it plays host to a wide range of top-notch theatrical and musical performances.
And, perhaps inevitably for a building its age, it’s purportedly home to no less than three ghosts.
But that’s a different sort of comeback story.
Sources: LancasterOnline, LNP archives, thefulton.org.