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Robber Baron's Chelsea Opera House Is Now a Dallas BBQ

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Welcome to Origin Stories, where Curbed fills you in on the stories of the ruthless robber barons behind the creation of some of NYC's most iconic buildings. Got a place you'd like to know more about? Let us know.

19th century robber baron James "Big Jim" Fisk was known for embarking on insanely risky (and usually very illegal) business ventures, which included the time that he wrested control of the Erie Railroad from Cornelius Vanderbilt (successful) and the time that he tried to buy all the gold in New York City (disastrous, but not for him). Perhaps the thing that he is most known for, however, is being murdered by an associate after becoming entangled in a love triangle where the third side of the triangle was a prostitute. He was not well liked. The day after his murder, the New York Times wrote that "No sympathy ... was possible," going on to describe the events leading up to the shooting as "a mere loathsome exhibition of depravity and cupidity such as, thank Heaven, does not often bring a blush to pure maiden faces or cause the ears of pruriency to tingle with its filthy recitals." It seems strangely appropriate then, in some vague way, that the enormous marble opera house that Fisk owned, lived in, and worked out of has since been replaced by a Dallas BBQ.

Fisk's Grand Opera House, originally called Pike's Opera House, was built in 1868 by distiller and entrepreneur Samuel Pike at 23rd Street and Eighth Avenue. The cost of construction for the five-story marble structure, which was adorned on the outside with statues of Comedy and Tragedy and seated 1,800, was one million dollars, a very hefty sum for the mid 19th century. The theater, though impressive, failed to draw patrons away from the more popular Academy of Music on 14th Street, and Pike was forced to close it after only one year in business.

The buyers that Pike found to take the enormous theater off his hands were "Big Jim" Fisk and his business partner (not the one who shot him) Jay Gould, fresh off their successful attempt to steal the Erie Railroad from under Cornelius Vanderbilt's nose. The two Tammany Hall-backed robber barons paid another million to renovate the one-year-old building and added offices (where Fisk would later barricade himself after the attempt to corner the gold market blew up and resulted in all his investors going broke) and an apartment for Fisk on the upper floors. Fisk also added a secret passageway to the back of the building from the adjacent apartment building in which he housed his prostitute mistress, Josie Mansfield. Mansfield was frequently given parts in productions at the theater, which became decidedly less classy under the stewardship of Fisk and Gould, first including operettas and later popular stage plays of the time such as "Uncle Tom's Cabin" (performed by white actors in blackface).

Following the scandal that erupted when Edward Stokes and Mansfield attempted to extort Fisk by using his shady business dealings against him, culminating in Fisk's 1872 murder at the hands of Stokes, the theater remained in Gould's possession. Never profitable before, it became even less so during this period and Gould was eventually reduced to renting it out to vaudeville acts. In 1938, it followed the trend of many theaters at the time and was converted to a movie house by RKO Theatres, who hired architect Thomas Lamb for the remodeling. Lamb stripped off much of the ornamentation and added retail shops and marquee.

The movie theater stayed open until 1960, when it was closed and, two weeks later, ravaged by a fire. It was demolished and what stands in its place now is a three-story office building with a Dallas BBQ and a Chicken Delight on the ground floor. "The recent acts of Fisk require no extended mention," the obituary of the site's former proprietor reads. "In fact, the less said the better." Unfortunately, the same is true of the grand marble building he once called home.
· From Silk Purse to Sow's Ear -- 23rd Street and 8th Avenue [Daytonian]
· Chelsea's old Opera House: from robber barons to BBQ [Bowery Boys]
· Origin Stories archives [Curbed]