As a fellow Wildean I expect you are already suspicious of titular double entendres, so I do not expect the gratuitous title of this article will entice you far. However, lest there be any misunderstanding about the direction of our story, we shall remain in Earnest. And to spare you any possible disappointment, as the flirtatious Gwendolen might say: Honest Abe does not produce any vibrations.
Instead, Lincoln and the Adult Novelty Store, in keeping with the theme of this blog, is a historical detective story about Oscar Wilde, and the title, I assure you, is an ideal headline.
In verifying Wilde’s tour of America I have reached Nebraska.
The first task when examining Wilde’s tour stops is to establish the location for his lectures. In this case, it is the lecture which took place on April 24, 1882 in the city of—I sense you anticipate me—Lincoln, the state capital of Nebraska.
The few contemporary newspaper reports that exist of Wilde’s lecture in Lincoln name City Hall as the venue, although one report cites the (lower case) opera house. Neither of these is entirely wrong, but neither alone allows us to be definitive.
Confusion arises if one takes City Hall to mean Lincoln’s first City Hall (or its more recent alternative name ‘Old City Hall’), a building extant at 920 O Street. Completed 1879 as a Post Office and Courthouse, it later served as the seat of the Lincoln city government for 62 years. However, on his American tour, Wilde typically did not lecture in municipal office buildings, and, besides, City Hall did not house an auditorium.
The report of an opera house, however, would appear to indicate that, as usual, Wilde did lecture in a theater setting. But if it were an opera house, which one? It could not have been the main Opera House in Lincoln (formerly Hallo’s and later Funke Opera House), because it was engaged on the night of Wilde’s lecture by a troupe of minstrels.
So, for over a century, the scant evidence had been unconvincing, and Wilde’s lecture venue in Lincoln remained unknown or misinterpreted. It is only following recent demolition work in Lincoln, that it is possible to identify the location here for the first time.
It was never this hot
The story starts in December 2010, with a fire that destroyed an entire lot at 941 O Street in Lincoln. The premises was known as the Romantix Building, an adult novelty store (one of a chain of 50 such stores across the region). So far, the cause of the fire remains (suspiciously) undetermined.
In stepped Ed Zimmer, Historic Preservation Planner at the Lincoln/Lancaster County Planning Dept., to examine the revealed structure. Ed knew that the building had some connection with City Hall, but he assumed that its role had been to serve as offices where government records had been kept.
If this were so, why then, upon inspection, were the apparent two upper floors revealed to be one tall floor?
Could it be that the inevitable modifications to the facade that made the structure unrecognizable for more than a century, had also masked its original use? A search of the archives for pictures of the original building proved instructive.
For instance, in this rare photograph of the 900 block of O Street around the time of Wilde’s visit, note the light-colored building with a flagpole at mid-block, which stands at the site of the 2010 fire.
The longtime owner of this c.1878 building was Frederick (Fred) Schmidt, a dry goods merchant, who was an early developer in Lincoln. The structure provided commercial use on the ground floor, and, as Ed had suspected, a taller upper floor, evidenced by the two-story height windows.
But it was when Ed noticed the words CITY HALL on the ornament of the north facing cornice, that the meaning became clear. This had not been a city hall in the sense of a municipal building after all. The name ‘hall’ designated a music or concert hall, (e.g. as in Carnegie Hall).
A meeting of the minds
Perhaps I should have suspected all along that it was that sort of hall—particularly given that Wilde’s previous two lectures had been at the similarly-named Liberty Hall in Lawrence, and Corinthian Hall in Atchison.
However, the Lincoln Planning Department, temple of Greek neoclassicism though they may be, is no Wildean forum. So your intrepid scholar remained unenlightened, like Archimedes in search of a bathtub. But two heads are eventually better than one, and when I learned of Ed’s excellent conclusions about city hall, all bets were off in the Eureka Stakes. The collaboration now explains the conundrum in Wilde’s lecture venue: a place at once a theater and a City Hall.
The City Hall Theatre
So to the record books. I discovered that by 1880, the Lincoln city directory noted the building stood on O Street opposite the government post office under the proprietorship of Schmidt and Jones, housing, it said, “City Hall, with a seating capacity of 1,000 used for all sorts of public purposes.” These activities, it transpired, would have included dances of The Pleasant Hour Club, and, later, productions of The People’s Theatre.
And the continued association of Schmidt, the building’s original owner, also turned this old clipping from my files into in a nicely circular piece of corroboration:
Many of Wilde’s lecture halls were destroyed by fire quite early in their lives—and not many remain. But Lincoln City Hall survived for well over a hundred years, during which time the building extended its commercial activities on three floors, with occupants including Schmidt Dry Goods, The Union Pacific Tea Company, Grand Leader Department Store, Simon Galter’s Men’s Furnishings, and the Golden Eagle Department Store. I should be amused that it took until the building was an adult novelty store before succumbing to the same fiery fate, but historical research is a serious business and I refuse to be tickled.
A word about Ellmann
In Ellmann (p. 202) it says that “Wilde lectured at the Presbyterian Road Church in Lincoln.” Ellmann, of course, was wrong—and not for the thousandth time. There was no Presbyterian Road in Lincoln, and Ellmann’s false reasoning, and more about the location, can be found here: Not That City Hall.
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