Patrick McGuire is the Elkhart County Historical Museum’s curator of education. He writes for the museum’s community blog for The Elkhart Truth, Elkhart County History.
Herbert Bucklen was one of the people who made his fortune in Elkhart. Born in New York in 1848, he came to Elkhart as a young child. As a young businessman, he established one of the first soda fountains in his father’s drug store, which was on the northeast corner of Main and Jackson streets. He earned his fortune from the development of medicines including “Bucklen’s Arnica Salve” and a number of other products.
After making it big, Bucklen left Elkhart for the booming city of Chicago, but never forgot where he first became successful. He used his riches to establish two legendary Elkhart buildings that are no longer standing but were some of the city’s premier landmarks: the Hotel Bucklen and the Bucklen Opera House.
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Bucklen’s first foray into improving Elkhart was completed in 1884 with the construction of the Bucklen Opera House. Before its construction, shows were performed at the Broderick Opera House, located at 125-127 S. Main St. The Bucklen, at the northwest corner of Main and Harrison streets, quickly became the cultural center of town. The new 1,200 seat theater provided great sources of entertainment for the people of Elkhart. Big names of the period like John Phillip Sousa and the great magician Harry Houdini performed at the theater.
Due to Elkhart being on a major railroad route, the opera house served as a place where many dramatic, vaudeville and musical groups would perform before they opened their shows in Chicago. Elkhartians were able to get a “sneak peak” of many of the top shows of the period.
Other than showing stage performances, the Bucklen Opera House was also the first theater to show a motion picture in Elkhart. Those who attended the showing had to pay a five cent admission for a seat in the balcony or ten cents to sit on the main floor. As time went on, the Opera House, now known as the Bucklen Theater, showed movies exclusively and was one of the four movie theaters in Elkhart during the 1940s and 1950s.
The last movie was shown in the theater in 1956. Afterwards, various parts of the building were converted into a ballet school, the home of the Elkhart Symphony Orchestra and a number of stores. After years, the building fell into disrepair and was torn down in 1986.
Bucklen’s effort to put his mark on Elkhart’s architectural landscape and culture did not end with the theater. He also invested a sum of $100,000 in 1889 to refurbish the Clifton House, a hotel that was built in 1863, at the southeast corner of Main and Jackson streets. Bucklen made improvements to the building, which included private baths in the rooms, elevators, electric lights and an extravagant dining area. The “Manual of Elkhart,”published in 1889, said the dining room was, “most elegantly furnished in antique oak with panel stucco work overhead, its graces are surmounted with mirrors, its sideboard is done in the highest style of art, and seating comfortably 100 guests, at once shades any hostelry outside the great cities.” The outside of the building had a fairly simple architectural style until 1900, when a floor was added, along with the building’s iconic belfry and cupola, which most people remember about the building. A fire badly damaged the building in the 1950s, and after it was remodeled in 1958, it was reopened under its original name, the Clifton House. It continued operating as a hotel until another fire in 1969 resulted in extensive damage. The building ceased to be used and was torn down in 1973.
Today the imprint of Herbert Bucklin on Elkhart is nowhere to be found. Currently, the site of the Bucklin Opera House is a parking lot next to the 523 Tap and Grill, and the Hotel Bucklin location is now home to the building the holds Compass Wealth Advising. The only way people know the grand buildings were at these locations are signs along the sidewalks, where you can read about and see images of the grand buildings that once stood and served as cultural centers of Elkhart life.