The performing arts have been nurtured at this location since the early 1840s. The story of the Five Flags Center begins when the City commenced construction on a hotel, at the corner of Fourth and Main Street - appropriately named the City Hotel.
In 1859, the City Hotel was redecorated and renamed the Peosta House. The name was changed twice within the next three years - Peosta Hall and Our New Hall - before Mr. William G. Stewart purchased the building and began converting the Hall into Dubuque's fifth major theater in 1862.
In 1864 - the facility reopened as the Athenaeum Theater. In its heyday, the Athenaeum hosted some of America's finest legitimate theater talent. World-famous actor, Edwin Forrest, performed there in 1870. Perhaps the most interesting performer was Kate Claxton, who appeared on it's stage in July of 1877, one of its last shows as the Athenaeum.
C.H. Eighmey and a Mr. Waller purchased, refurbished, and reopened the theater as the Duncan-Waller Opera House in late 1877. The Opera House was a thriving operation until 1893, when it again changed names and became the Main Street Opera House.
In 1896 - Mr. Bartell leased the building and renamed it Bartell's Dramatic and Vaudeville Theatre. Bartell's was taken over and renamed the Coates Opera House by new management in 1903, then changed hands in rapid succession. In 1904, Jake Rosenthal, a Dubuque theater entrepreneur, assumed control of the theater and renamed it the Bijou.
In 1908, C.H. Eighmey and an H.B. Spensley purchased and renovated the theater and reopened it as the New Bijou in late 1908. A few months later, the theater was leased to the Western Vaudeville Association of Chicago.
A fire destroyed the 53 year old structure in April 1910. The existing theater was designed and built by C.W. and George L. Rapp of Chicago, who would go on to become America's premier theater architects.
The Majestic, as it was called, is of Renaissance Revival style with French and Italian influences. In 1920, the facility was converted into a movie house and renamed the Spensley Theater in 1929.
Four years later, it became part of the RKO film theater circuit and was renamed the RKO Orpheum.
The Orpheum, like much of lower Main Street, lost its glitter. By 1969, the Theater was earmarked for demolition as part of Dubuque's 12 block downtown urban renewal program.
Those opposed to the demolition believed the Orpheum was an irreplaceable treasure, and conceived the notion of obtaining private donations to combine a restored theater with a new exhibition-arts facility for an all-purpose civic center on the block bordered by Fourth, Fifth, Main, and Locust Streets.
What's in a name?
The steering committee dubbed its project Five Flags Civic Center, incorporating the five national flags that have flown over the geographical region since 1673: the Fleur de Lis of France (1673-1763); the Royal Flag of Spain (1763-1803); the Union Jack of England (1780, during a brief interruption of Spanish rule); the French Republic Flag of Napoleon (1803); and America's Stars and Stripes (1803-Present).
The committee officially launched a fund drive in December 1971 to renovate the Orpheum and build an adjoining arts arcade and exhibition hall. Architects were hired in July 1972 to design the facility. In November, 1972, the Orpheum was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. The theater was restored in 1975, renamed the Five Flags Theater and reopened March 13, 1976.
Beyond the Theater
On August 17, 1976, a bond referendum was held for the construction of the Five Flags Civic Center, to be attached to the existing theater. An overwhelming 70% majority voted yes.
Besides the arena, which covers 27,000 square feet of floor space and seats up to 4,000, the new plan called for badly needed theater support rooms, as well as locker rooms, storage space, and administrative offices. The complex was connected to and designed to complement the restored theater.
The dream of the handful of men and women who spared one of America's most magnificent theaters from demolition came to life when the new Civic Center opened its doors in 1979, alongside the restored jewel of Fourth and Main.