MSU Riley Center

History & Renovation

Riley Center StageIn the late 1800s, I. Marks and half brother Levi Rothenberg saw tremendous potential in Meridian. So they built the Grand Opera House and the Marks Rothenberg department store as complements to each other in the heart of downtown. Meridian was a logical stop on the railroad between New Orleans and Chicago and was on the verge of being quite a cosmopolitan city. Marks and the Rothenberg brothers—Levi, Sam, and Marks—were genuinely interested in enhancing Meridian's arts and cultural offerings, as well as in making what they considered a wise investment.

The term "grand opera house" came from the theater guidebook of that time period and designated theaters that met certain qualifications in terms of the structure. Many people mistakenly think that only operas were held in the theater. In fact, the opera house was host to some of the most popular traveling shows of that time, including vaudeville, minstrel shows, and even some of the earliest silent movies. Like other opera houses of its day, it was adversely affected by the introduction of contemporary movie theaters and closed its doors in 1927. Tied up in lawsuits for decades, the Grand Opera House was left virtually untouched from the time of its closure, making restoration to its original beauty possible. Historic preservationists were thrilled to find the theater largely intact, with exquisite woodwork, wainscoting, remnants of over 60 different wall coverings, and the original lambrequin hanging above the stage.

MSU Riley Center RestorationWhile the Grand Opera House closed, the department store continued to operate under various forms and ownership until 1990. At some point in the early 1960s, the exterior of the Marks Rothenberg building was covered with metal siding, as was the trend to "modernize" buildings at that time, making them devoid of the very character and rich architecture that made them so special. Starting in the 1980s, a portion of the siding was removed to unveil the beautiful windows and intricate brick and mortar design, giving the community a sense of what the building could be again. Over the next two decades, efforts increased to save the Grand Opera House and restore the Marks Rothenberg building for new use.

Area community leaders and Mississippi State University began to articulate a vision for the theater and adjoining Marks Rothenberg and Newberry buildings. The project got its real momentum in January 2000, when The Riley Foundation made the anchor $10 million contribution to restore the buildings. The contribution was made with a stipulation that Mississippi State University own and operate the center. Other donations by local, state, and federal agencies followed. In total, the project represents a $25 million restoration effort. Master planning started in 2002; demolition work began in spring 2003, with construction work starting later that same year. The center opened in September 2006.