The Grand Old Lady of Prince Street

On May 4, 1852, the Lancaster Intelligencer announced…

“Messrs. Hager and Eberman, the purchasers of the Old Prison Property, at the corner of West King and Prince Streets, it is said, intend to erect a large and commodious hall on that site during the present building season, a portion of which is to be used for lectures, exhibitions, etc. Such a building has long been needed in this city, and we are pleased that two such public spirited citizens have undertaken the matter. We have no doubt they will find it a profitable investment.”

1,500 people bought tickets for the opening day event on October 14, 1852 of what was then known as Fulton Hall, and it’s been drawing a crowd ever since.

Built on the first block of North Prince Street, the theater was designed by Samuel Sloane, the same Philadelphia architect who designed the Lancaster County Courthouse in 1852. Notable of the Fulton’s construction is the rear foundation wall of the old prison that was incorporated into the new building.

View of the stage at Fulton Hall c 1870
View of the stage at Fulton Hall, c. 1870.

Early in its career, the theater saw many uses. The Court of Quarter Sessions used the Fulton during the courthouse construction between 1853 and 1854.  When Franklin College and Marshall College merged in 1853, the ceremony was held at the Fulton with future President James Buchanan presiding. Franklin and Marshall College would continue to use the Fulton for various events.

In 1856, Hager sold the Fulton to Blasius Yecker and Hilaire Zaepfel. While Zaepfel would sell out his share to Yecker in 1869, Yecker would take the Fulton to new heights in the coming decades. With the increased scope of railroads in the 1860s came the traveling theater troupes and stock companies in the 1870s. Yecker hired Edward Forrest Durang, grandson of noted actor and Lancastrian John Durang, to help with remodeling what would be renamed the Fulton Opera House. Yecker held a grand re-opening on December 2, 1873 with a production of “Othello”.

1873 to 1913 was considered to be the Fulton’s heyday. Electric lights were installed by 1880 and a shooting gallery was installed on the third floor. The theater was often hot, smelly, overcrowded and began to attract a rougher crowd. Blasius Yecker’s son, Charles, took over the show in 1903. He commissioned C. Emlan Urban to remodel the interior of the theater in a neo-classical style. Urban added the “Peanut Gallery” second balcony, box seats, and an enlarged stage.

Rear foundation wall that was part of the old prison
Rear foundation wall that was part of the old prison.

To compete with local movie houses, Yecker created his own stock company. By 1920 this included a burlesque show. The Fulton was now known as the “Queen of the Roadhouses.” The Lancaster Law and Order Society had Yecker arrested for “exhibiting immoral shows.” By the time the Great Depression was in full swing, Ralph Coho was the new owner and the theater became a second-rate movie house.

Hope arrived for the Fulton Opera House in 1963 with the formation of the Fulton Opera House Foundation. Headed by Nathaniel Hager, great-grandson of original owner Christopher Hager, the organization purchased the theater and began a movement for its restoration. In 1969 it became a National Landmark. The Fulton was the subject of a documentary, “The Old Lady of Prince Street”, in 1982, and underwent a major renovation in 1995, cementing its history as one of the oldest continuously operating theaters in the United States.

The Fulton has seen all kinds of performers during its life – from Ole Bull to Mark Twain, from Ethyl Barrymore and Sarah Bernhardt to Carrie Nation. Even an actual marriage was performed on stage in 1913. The couple – Grover Cleveland Kauffman and Bertha Weber – were happily married for nearly 50 years. The Fulton Opera House has never seen a dull moment, and continues to entertain Lancastrians for nearly 170 years!

More Information: LancasterHistory houses the Fulton Opera House Collection. You can search the collection online at (Search for “Fulton Opera House Collection.”

From PhotoBlog