Willoughby Edbrooke (1843 – 1896), was born on September 3, 1843, in Deerfield, Illinois. Edbrooke’s father was an English-born contractor and builder and raised Willoughby in the architectural profession until he reached an age to study under the most advanced masters in Chicago. He studied for several years under the best architects in the city and was recognized for a thorough mastery of his profession. He was Commissioner of Buildings in Chicago and subsequently served as Supervising Architect for Chicago. He supervised and designed the U.S. Government Buildings erected at the 1893 Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition. Edbrooke’s other notable designs include:  The Milwaukee Federal Building; the Old Post Office Building in Washington DC; the Federal Courthouse and Post Office in St. Paul, Minnesota; several buildings on the University of Notre Dame’s campus in South Bend, IN, including the iconic gold-domed Main Administrative Building; and the State Capitol Building in Atlanta, GA.

Edbrooke’s design of the Grand Opera House is a very early example of the Richardsonian Romanesque style in Dubuque. The Grand Opera House was built between 1889 and 1890 and is located at the corner of 8th and Iowa Streets in Dubuque. The Grand Opera House is architecturally important as an early Richardsonian Romanesque building and perhaps one of the best designs of Edbrooke’s work.


Interior of the Grand Opera House (Kinseth Hospitality Companies)


Portrait of Willoughby Edbrooke (Hickey Family History, Schlereth, Portrait of Its History, p. 59)









The Grand’s distinctive heavy rounded arches at its base and its red sandstone and brick for construction are hallmarks of the Richardsonian Romanesque style.  According to the National Register nomination, the façade overlays the classical base, column and capital in its fenestration pattern, all applied to a broad, shallow gabled pavilion basic form. Twin armory towers with steeply pitched pyramid roofs and finials define the sides of the pavilion. The brickwork and stone foundation are purposely unified by means of a smooth finish and blended narrow mortar joints. The features of the façade are not carried over to either side walls. The building stands five stories in height and measures 70×128. The opera house interior has been repeatedly remodeled over time, including the removal of the second balcony.   However much of the original theater interior survives. The lobby stairways retain their Queen Anne trim work and remain in their original locations.  The exterior was modified over the years as well, including covering the façade in the mid-1950s with enameled metal siding.


Drawing of the Grand Opera House (Grand Opera House Website)

At the time of its construction, the Grand Opera House was the largest theater to be built in Dubuque. The theatre had a 1,100 seat auditorium including two balconies, eight boxes and stalls and a proscenium large enough to host major theatrical productions.  A July 23, 1890 Herald article noted that the new theatre, “is by far the finest and largest edifice of its character ever erected in the city, and it is not excelled in the state.” The Grand had a long time direct association with the “legitimate theater” in Dubuque between 1890 and 1928.  The theater allowed for the staging of exceptionally large scale and high quality shows. Dubuque was in a fortunate position to establish and offer the legitimate theater and was the only city of its size to be so favored, with the best traveling companies visiting Dubuque as a Midwest railroad hub.  The Grand Opera House is the only surviving example of Edbrooke’s theatre designs.

In 1998, The Grand launched a campaign to renovate and restore the building to the look and style of the 1890s original design.  All of the 1950s metal siding was removed, exposing the impressive, monumental original façade.  The building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2002. The building has a high level of historic integrity and was restored to host live stage entertainment once again.