MOUNT VERNON — The year was 1851.
California became America’s 31st state, and the landmark Ohio Constitution of 1851 took effect. Abraham Lincoln practiced law in Illinois. Jefferson Davis left the U.S. Senate and lost a run for governor of Mississippi. Harriet Beecher Stowe published the first installments of
Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” And Dr. Ebenezer Woodward opened his new four-story building at the corner of Main and Vine streets in Mount Vernon.
Woodward Hall, an ornate center for lectures and the performing arts, occupied the top two floors. The lower floors were devoted to businesses and office space. Dr. Woodward didn’t live to see the theater’s first major renovation in 1883, when it came to be known as the Woodward Opera House. One has to wonder what he would make of his little theater in Knox County being recognized on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Woodward is the second-oldest surviving theater in the country, and the oldest that remains in original form. It is commonly referenced as the oldest authentic 19th-century theater in America.
Yesterday, the Woodward was vibrant. It hosted everything from Daniel Emmett and the Al Fields Minstrel Company to vaudeville and silent movies; and from performances of the hugely influential Uncle Tom’s Cabin to a speech by future president and then Ohio Governor William McKinley.
Today, the interior is a battered and dusty shell of its glorious past, a victim of time and decades of neglect since the close of the opera house in the 1920s and shuttering of the second floor office spaces in the 1960s.
Tomorrow, if forward thinkers from the Woodward Development Corporation and the Knox Partnership for Arts and Culture are proved correct, the ghosts of the Woodward will be shooed away and it will again echo with the sounds of theater goers.