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Oscar Wilde In America

a selected resource of oscar wilde's visits to america

New York, NY

The Decorative Arts | Venue | Monday, January 9, 1882


—Not That "City Hall"—

Verifying Wilde's Lecture Venue in Lincoln, NE

Most contemporary reports of Wilde's lecture in Lincoln, Nebraska on April 24, 1882 name City Hall as the location for his lecture; one other report says he lectured at the opera house. Neither of these is entirely wrong, but neither alone allows us to be definitive.

The two venues immediately suggested by those references are:

1) the City Hall

Some accounts of Wilde's lecture tour cite this reference, or its more recent alternative name 'Old City Hall,' the assumption being Lincoln's first City Hall, a building extant at 920 O Street.

This was a 'city hall' in the usual sense of a municipal building. 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.

2) the opera house

This reference would indicate that Wilde's lecture did, in fact, take place in a theater setting. But the lower case suggests it would not have been the main Opera House (formerly Hallo's and later Funke Opera House).

This is borne out by the listing (below) which not only indicates that the Opera House was otherwise engaged on April 24, it also confirms that Wilde lectured at a venue called City Hall.

But this listing also adds that the proprietor was a Fred Schmidt, and this piece of evidence helps to resolve the apparent conflict.

New York Dramatic Mirror, 1882

The City Hall Theatre

Confusion has arisen because Wilde's lecture took place at a theater that was known briefly as "City Hall," with the name used in the sense of a music or concert hall, as in his previous two lectures at Liberty Hall (Lawrence) and Corinthian Hall (Atchison) .

Frederick (Fred) Schmidt, a dry goods merchant, was an early developer in Lincoln, and the longtime owner of premises built c. 1878 that provided for commercial use on the ground floor, with a two-story height theater on the upper floor. It was here that Wilde lectured.

The words CITY HALL on the ornament
of the north facing cornice

By 1880, the city directory noted that the building stood on O Street opposite the government post office under the proprietorship of Schmidt and Jones., housing "City Hall, with a seating capacity of 1,000 used for all sorts of public purposes." These activities included dances of The Pleasant Hour Club, and, later, productions of The People's Theatre.

The building subsequently extended its commercial activities to both floors, 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.

The inevitable modifications to the facade that made the structure unrecognizable, also masked its original use for more than a century.

Fortunately, the building's identity was reestablished in 2010 by Ed Zimmer, Historic Preservation Planner at the Lincoln/Lancaster County Planning Dept., following a fire that destroyed the building. His work in examining the revealed structure, and researching its heritage, is largely instrumental in enabling the former City Hall theater to be identified.

Lincoln, Nebraska interactive map

Journal Star (Lincoln, NE) - Report of Fire

Lincoln and the Adult Novelty Store

Not This City Hall


The original "old city hall" in Lincoln, NE.
Not the venue for Wilde's lecture.

A Note About Ellmann

The most highly regarded biography of Wilde is the Pulitzer Prize-winning Oscar Wilde (1987) by the American literary critic Richard Ellmann.

While the book insightfully understands Wilde in an impressively elegant scope, it is notoriously flawed its detail owing to its being finalized during the last months of Ellmann's life. The many errors are identified in Horst Schroeder's fine Additions and Corrections to Richard Ellmann's Oscar Wilde (2002).

However, it is worth while to append to Schroeder's list Ellmann's error about the lecture venue in Lincoln, as it is cautionary against composing from manuscript notes and dimming memory—although to be fair to Ellmann, he was writing in a pre-digital age.

Ellmann posits (p. 202):

"Wilde lectured at the Presbyterian Road Church in Lincoln..."

His reference is a letter by George E. Woodberry (who had accompanied Wilde around Lincoln) written to Charles Eliot Norton on April 25, 1882, from which Ellmann makes several transcribing errors; e.g. mulberry for mud (also noted by Schroeder), and music for masses.

As for the lecture, what Woodberry actually wrote was that Wilde, "lectured under the auspices of the Presbyterian church." Further, as Ellmann also cites, Woodberry told Wilde that "the nearest I have come to going to church for a long while was in attending your lecture," which surely indicates it was not in an actual church. [1]

For the record, there was (and still is) no 'Presbyterian Road' in Lincoln, where most streets are either numbers or letters. [2]

[1] ‪The Prairie Schooner, ‪Lowry Charles Wimberly‪‬, University of Nebraska Press, 1947‬, Volume 21, p. 113.

[2] In 1882, The First Presbyterian Church, which opened October 9, 1870, was near Eleventh and J streets until moving to larger premises in 1884.

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