The pride of Stanstead, Quebec, and Derby Line, Vermont, the Haskell Free Library and Opera House was constructed deliberately astride the boundary line separating Canada from the United States. This remarkable institution has attracted visitors from around the world. The subject of an ongoing fascination on the part of the media, the Haskell has been featured on network news around the world and in publications such as Life Magazine, Canadian Geographic, the New York Times, Ripley’s Believe It or Not, and countless others. The Haskell has been classified a historic site by the governments of Canada, the United States, and the Province of Quebec.
The Haskell Free Library and Opera House was the gift of Martha Stewart Haskell and her son, Colonel Horace Stewart Haskell. It was dedicated to Mrs. Haskell’s late husband, Carlos, a prominent merchant. The family’s aim was to provide the border communities with a centre for learning and cultural enrichment. The opera house, located on the second floor of the building, also had a practical purpose. According to the original charter, dated 1908, it was to be “forever managed and used for the support and maintenance” of the library, located downstairs.
The cornerstone of the Haskell was laid on October 15, 1901 by members of Stanstead’s Golden Rule Lodge, assisted by prominent Masons from both sides of the border, including Col. Haskell himself. The building was designed by Stanstead architect James Ball and his partner, Gilbert Smith, of Boston. Construction was supervised by Nathan Beach, a contactor from Georgeville, Quebec. After a number of delays, the building was completed in 1904 at an estimated cost of $50,000 – a princely sum for that time.
The Haskell was long said to be a scale replica of the Boston Opera House. This, however, has proven to be quite untrue. The building is, in fact, unique. Nowhere else in the world can one sit in an opera house that is literally split in two by an international border, where most of the audience sits in the U.S. to watch a show on a stage in Canada. Nowhere else can one find such an unusual library. The front door is in the U.S., the circulation desk and all of the books are in Canada, and the reading room is international.
The Haskell’s two street facades are splendid examples of late Victorian architecture, and combine elements of various building styles. They contrast with the rear of the building, which is strongly Georgian, or neo-Classical, in style. The Haskell is also notable for the quality of its building materials – local Stanstead grey granite on the exterior, and rare native woods, stained glass, mosaics and tin ceilings on the interior.
The atmosphere in the library is luxurious yet restive. There are fireplaces and sofas for reading. This contrasts with the festive mood in the opera house upstairs, with its proscenium arch, plaster cherubs, murals, and picturesque stage scenery. The drop curtain, scenery, props, and stage machinery are all original and well preserved. They constitute one of the most complete sets of their kind anywhere. The scenery, transported to the Haskell by train, is believed to be the only surviving work of the celebrated Boston artist, Erwin LaMoss.
The acoustics in the opera house are excellent, and have delighted audiences and performers alike since opening night on June 7, 1904. On that occasion, the Columbian Minstrels performed an old-fashioned black-face routine. The second half of the evening was devoted to a musical comedy, “the Isle of Rock,” featuring Boston star Eugene Cowles.
Over the past century, the Haskell has hosted an impressive array of performing artists and public speakers. Luminaries such as William Jennings Bryan and Arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson have lectured within its walls. E. Pauline Johnson (Tekahionwake) has recited her poetry here. In the heyday of traveling vaudeville, the Sunny South and the Guy Bothers minstrel shows were popular draws.
In later years, the North Country Concert Association brought some of the finest performers to the Haskell stage. Jazz, blues, folk, bluegrass, rock, classical music, dance, and adult and children’s theatre have all taken centre stage. The Vermont Symphony Orchestra and I Musici de Montreal have played at the Haskell to sell-out crowds – as have Oliver Jones, the Vermont Jazz Ensemble, and many others. The Montreal West Operatic Society has been a tradition at the opera house for the past 25 years, producing Gilbert and Sullivan favourites.
Generations of performers have left their signatures on the dressing room walls, and these have been carefully preserved to this day. The opera house has never been the money-maker the Haskells intended it to be, but it has certainly provided the border communities with some interesting entertainment.
From 1993 to 1997, the opera house was closed due to government requirements involving handicapped access and fire safety. After a year of construction, and the addition of sprinklers, an elevator, and a fire escape tower – all respecting the historic character of the building – the opera house was reopened amid much fanfare.
Today, the Haskell Free Library and Opera House is both an important local institution and a tourist attraction. It is a cultural gem, recognized far and wide as something unique, something to be treasured.
Text compiled by Matthew Farfan