Special to the Tribune-Star
TERRE HAUTE —
This week’s historic treasure is more than a local landmark; it’s also a national treasure. The Hippodrome theater, at 727 Ohio St., is America’s oldest standing vaudeville theater.
When Terre Haute businessman Theodore Barhydt decided to build another theater, he commissioned noted theater architect John Eberson to design the building. Eberson was best known for his movie palace designs. He also was a pioneer in the “atmospheric” theater style.
On Feb. 15, 1915, the Hippodrome opened its doors — and what a “palace” Barhydt got. At a cost of $65,000, the German Renaissance revival-style building’s brick façade features symmetrical towers, terra cotta brackets and medallion reliefs with snarling lions. Inside, crystal chandeliers and decorative plaster moldings grace both inner and outer lobbies. Some of these moldings are made of papier-mâché, which was popular during that period.
The auditorium area offers a big stage, 80 feet wide by 60 feet high by 40 feet deep. The proscenium arch, the curtain and framework around it, is 44 feet wide, with a 30-foot-high arch. The fire curtain itself closes to reveal a larger-than-life image of a Roman chariot race. This is in honor of the chariot races which took place in the hippodromes, or racecourses, of ancient Greece and Rome.
Comfort was a necessity. For those patrons of wider girth, some sections of seats were 24 inches wide rather than the standard 19. Also, the spectator floor was slanted to give a clear view of the stage. Safety was an issue. The theater is still considered a most fireproof building. The only wood in it is the doors and doorframes; the rest is stone or masonry.
In the theater’s heyday, great performers including Jack Benny, George Burns and Gracie Allen, the Marx Brothers, Will Rogers and Buffalo Bill graced its stage.
Over the decades, Eberson and his son, Drew, designed more than 1,200 theaters, only a few of which have survived. We have two of this fine architect’s beautiful theaters right here in Terre Haute: the Hippodrome and the Indiana Theatre.
The building has gone through many changes since 1915. As vaudeville faded, it became a movie theater. Then, from 1931 to 1947, the Community Theatre made its home there. In 1949 it was remodeled and renamed the Wabash Theater. The building’s theatrical run ended in 1954 when the Wabash Theater closed. In 1955, the Masonic Scottish Rite of Terre Haute purchased the building. Today it is used as their cathedral and museum.
Tours of the building can be arranged by calling 812-234-3761 for an appointment. The Hippodrome Theater/Scottish Rite Temple was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983.
The Historical Society has a file on the Hippodrome Theater in its photo archives.