The Millett Opera House, at 110 East Ninth Street, has been the home of The Austin Club since 1981. Built by city father Captain Charles F. Millett in 1878, the building was designed by leading architect Frederick E. Ruffini. When completed, the opera house was second in size and grandeur only to the Galveston Opera House. It had 800 moveable seats, balcony, private boxes and an exquisite hand-painted ceiling, a portion of which now hangs in the club’s House Conference Room.
The building’s 24-inch-thick limestone walls have stood the test of time and witnessed much revelry and history. In the late 1800’s, Austin’s 11,000 citizens made the building the social center of the city. The Opera House had programs ranging from medicine shows to legislative sessions while the new Capitol was being constructed. It also hosted church services, political conventions, graduations, dances and recitals, as well as opera and theater productions. Notables who performed in front of its kerosene footlights include John L. Sullivan, Williams Jennings Bryan, John Phillip Sousa, Lily Langtry, Joseph Jefferson, James O’Neill and John Wilkes Booth’s brother, Edwin.
In 1896 the building was converted to a skating rink and household storage space. Subsequent owners included the Knights of Columbus, who added the front portico in 1911. In 1940 the Austin Public Free Schools purchased the property. It was threatened with destruction in 1956 but survived when a prominent printing and office supply company took out a long term lease and restored much of the first floor.
In 1979 the school system approved a 50-year lease to The Austin Club, which continued the extensive renovation and moved into its historic new quarters on December 15, 1980. It is fitting that The Austin Club is situated in such graceful surroundings. The club is the oldest in downtown Austin, having been founded in 1949 with 483 members. At the time the capital’s population was only 132,459 and the tallest building was fourteen stories.
The club, and its membership, has grown with the city. Two generations of staff and members have benefited from the club’s timeless standard of elegance and hospitality.
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