PALESTINE, Ill. (WTHI) History is being revisited in an Illinois town. Palestine’s Fife Opera house closed its doors for good almost 100 years ago. But, a group of Palestine citizens had other plans.
Using their own money and grant funding this group hopes to re-introduce a new generation to the cultural hub of their downtown.
Tucked in among the store fronts in downtown Palestine, Illinois rests a sleeping giant.
If it weren’t for the”Fife Opera House” sign high atop the facade, you may not think the building once entertained thousands.
“It was in production for vaudeville, in plays, traveling tent shows and community events like talent shows,” Opera house historian Polly Rapp said.
The Opera House was completed in 1902 by David Fife an under-taker from Palestine. The ground floor was a hardware store and upstairs was the magnificent theater.
“The auditorium supposedly seated over 400 and I’ve heard as much as 700,” Rapp said.
But, after only 13 years Fife would close the opera house for good under a bizarre circumstance.
“The fire marshal told David Fife he had to have a fire escape,” Rapp explained. “(Fife) said “no bureaucrat’s gonna tell me what to do!’ and so he shut it down.”
There the theater sat. It has switched hands many times until the early 1990’s. That’s when Joan Fulling and a group known as the Palestine Preservation Projects Society bought the old playhouse.
“It was just about 5 or 6 years ago that we started working upstairs and we had to work from the top down,” Fulling said.
These last few years have uncovered the art time left behind. Like the two original paintings flanking the stage or the original back drops from those turn of the century plays.
But they’ve also found something else: part of David Fife’s history
“Up stairs were also the rooms that he used for the undertaking business,” Rapp said.
You can still find old coffins and remnants of that business behind the stage. As Joan will tell you, over time this building has become Palestine’s unofficial museum; back rooms that are filled with history of the town and an auditorium waiting to come alive again.
“Its a beautiful place, it is historic, it has an ambience that you don’t find in other places,” Fulling mused.