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Discover Oshkosh, WI’s Thriving Art Scene — and the Historic Venues That House It

Gorgeous buildings like the Grand Opera House and Sawyer Home host a wide array of arts and entertainment.

By Kevin Litwin on May 18, 2018

Sawyer Home

With 37 listings on the National Register of Historic Places and surrounded by 53 more throughout Winnebago County, Oshkosh is a city that appreciates the past while embracing modern-day technology and growth. A ‘haunted’ opera house and a Tiffany-furnished mansion have inspired and entertained Oshkosh residents for more than a century, and here is some background:

Bohemian Rhapsody

You’ll encounter just about all types of performing arts at the restored Grand Opera House – except opera.

Blues and jazz concerts fill the house, roadshow companies perform, world-class jugglers and magicians astound audiences while ballet companies and classical musicians offer inspiring performances. Educational opportunities are offered each year to the public in the form of classes and workshops, but opera hasn’t been the main attraction since the turn of the century. The first opera performed at the Grand was “The Bohemian Girl” in 1883.

The theater began a slow decline when it ceased booking touring companies featuring performers like Enrico Caruso and Mark Twain and turned to vaudeville in the 1920s. The city bought the structure in the early 1980s after voters voted in favor of that in a referendum, and restoration efforts began.

After a massive grassroots campaign and a millions of dollars raised and invested, the Grand Opera House reopened in 1996 with a commemorative performance of “The Bohemian Girl.” And like all good opera houses, the Grand is reputedly haunted. Some feel the ghost is that of Percy Keene, longtime stage manager. If so, he must be pleased to have his theater restored to its former glory.

A Home for the Arts

In 1908, the Sawyer Home was described as one of the finest residences in Wisconsin. Today, it is recognized as the home of one of the finest art collections in the state.

The Edwardian-era home was built for banker and businessman Edgar Sawyer and his wife, Mary. It included interiors designed and furnished by New York’s Tiffany Studios, plus some of the latest technological features of the day. Following the death of his wife, Edgar donated the residence to the city of Oshkosh. Since then, the home has been a major component of the Oshkosh Public Museum.

The museum holds more than 300,000 items in trust, including decorative arts, textiles, toys, natural history specimens, Native American and other historic artifacts, and an outstanding archival collection.

Royal Paine

The Paine Art Center and Gardens has been a cultural mainstay and family favorite in Oshkosh since 1948. The centerpiece of the center is the Paine mansion, with interiors 

The museum preserves the property’s historic architecture, with the mansion as the centerpiece, a Bryant Fleming-designed Tudor Revival-style country estate. Founders Nathan and Jessie Paine acquired much of the museum’s art collection, which is featured throughout the many rooms and settings fo the estate. The center maintains numerous outdoor gardens to showcase fine examples of horticultural design and thousands of plant specimens. 

The museum presents changing exhibitions of classic and contemporary art as well as seasonal events such as “Nutcracker in the Castle” during the winter holidays. 

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Other arts-related points of interest in Oshkosh include EAA Aviation Museum, Jambalaya Arts, Inc. and Military Veterans Museum.

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