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  • Building and Rebuilding CommunityDiscourse, Public Memory, and the Grand Opera House of Oshkosh, Wisconsin
  • Stephanie May de Montigny (bio)

Historic monuments help us to understand the past and to envision and participate in urban communities. Yet how do diverse groups participate in community in the present if their voices are absent from historical representations? How does a city incorporate new residents who have different ties to place than people with longer historical connections? At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the city of Oshkosh faces the challenge of unifying the community across ethnic and class differences, especially in difficult economic times. In this context, the Grand Opera House of Oshkosh has emerged as a contested local historic monument. Built by elites in 1883, used as a pornographic movie theater in the 1950s, and restored in the 1960s and 1980s, the Grand Opera House occupies an important yet disputed place in building community and facilitating broad participation in contemporary civic life of Oshkosh. In the 1960s and 1980s, public discourse promoting restoration of the theater neglected the history of working-class residents. Instead, nostalgic, gendered depictions highlighted the experiences of elites in the late nineteenth century and encouraged support for the Grand’s restoration by promising access to the glorious dimensions of an imagined past. Such selective representations fed the persistent notion that the Grand served only a segment of the Oshkosh population. I begin here to explore the varied voices, diverse actors, and complexities of this building’s historical past that impact the civic role of the Grand in the Oshkosh community (Figure 1).

Few places in Oshkosh embody the stories and memories of local people to the same degree as the Grand Opera House. Since its initial construction, audiences at the Grand have seen vaudeville; films; professional and community productions of music, dance, and theater; and more. Residents have attended and participated in performances and worked at the theater. The continuing evocative power of the Grand appears over and over in personal stories, innumerable newspaper articles, amateur historical works, and now online forums such as Facebook.1 As I argue in this paper, examining the intersection of discourse and architecture illuminates how sites of public memory like the Grand represent history, construct community identity, and facilitate civic participation.

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Figure 1.

The Grand Opera House, 1897. Later modifications to and restoration of the exterior affected the entrance, balcony, windows, and corner. Courtesy of the Oshkosh Public Museum, Oshkosh, Wisconsin. All rights reserved.

Various scholars have explored how discourse, architecture, and place converge to shape the meanings that sites of public memory convey. [End Page 73] Studies have focused on Williamsburg, the Alamo, and Andrew Wyeth’s Chadds Ford, among others. Some authors have discussed national processes of public memory in relation to the Holocaust. Others have explored debates over historic preservation in places like Los Angeles and Mazatlan.2 Noyes and Abrahams, for example, demonstrated that through discourse people negotiate the meanings of built structures as they relate to local history and culture.3 The works of Stewart (in Appalachia) and Basso (with the Western Apache) uncover how people’s narrative engagement with place impacts their understandings of themselves and their worlds.4 They show that the ways discourse and architecture intertwine may create superficial, generalized meanings or deep, multifaceted, personal associations.

Buildings convey meaning about place and community identity by making history and memories visible, or public. As Edward Chappell has argued, buildings can act as teaching tools for public history. Yet as a way of recalling the past, public memory is fluid, selective, and diverse. While architecture may become an avenue to prevent forgetting, as Liliane Weissberg has written, the understandings of the past created through the preservation of old buildings are not unproblematic. 5 The work of these scholars compels us to investigate how sites of public memory represent history and community in ways that attend to or neglect contentious subjects, less desirable time periods, and marginalized groups of people.

Casey Nelson Blake, for example, has argued that we tend to eliminate more uncomfortable aspects of the past from public memory in favor of those that are comfortable...


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pp. 73-95
Launched on MUSE
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