Thursday, January 3, 2019

Businessman Peter Sonna Dedicates an Opera House for Boise City [otd 01/03]

On January 3, 1889, the Idaho Daily Statesman, Boise City, Idaho, headlined, “Dedication of the New Opera House under the auspices of the Boise City Board of Trade … ” The article went on, “The dedication … will take place in the above opera house, in Sonna’s new block … ”
Sonna Building. Boise Architectural Project.

The location reference was to a large construction project financed and planned by businessman Peter Sonna.

Born in New York City in November 1835, Sonna followed the gold rush to California when he was a teenager. He remained a miner through 1862, prospecting successively in California, northern Idaho, and the Boise Basin. In 1863, he moved to Boise City and opened a hardware and general merchandise store.

By 1888, Sonna was a prominent leader in the Boise business community. That year, he began construction of a large project anchored at the corner of 9th and Main. The Peter Sonna Hardware Company occupied the ground floor. The second floor became the opera house – the first in Boise City – dedicated on January 3rd.

James A. Pinney, owner of a bookstore and a theater enthusiast [blog, Sept 29], served as first manager of the new opera house. The night after the dedication, the theater offered its first shows: “The brilliant social drama ‘Noemie’ …" and "the laughable farce ‘Turn Him Out’.” During the following summer, Sonna and Pinney increased the seating capacity to about 800 viewers and corrected some “slight acoustic defects.”
Mayor Sonna. City of Boise.

Three years after the dedication, Pinney built his own pavilion, the Columbia Theater. The Columbia and Sonna’s venue would be the main entertainment competition in Boise for over a decade. Over the five or six years following the dedication,  Sonna continued to add onto his structure, expanding the store floor space. He may have also added offices to the structure.

In 1893, Sonna was elected to a term as Boise City Mayor. At the time he took office, the financial “Panic of '93” had already crippled businesses across the country, including some in Boise. Still, despite a shoestring budget, the new mayor pushed through a number of civic improvements. That included a small professionalized police force, although he did have to reach into his own pocket to provide uniforms for the officers.

Around the time Sonna’s term ended, contractors completed an extension to the hardware store. In 1901, further alterations raised the roof of the opera house about eight feet, and expanded the seating to a thousand. The following year, the Statesman reported that, “A new system of lighting, including several elaborate electric chandeliers, is being installed.”

In 1903, new managers leased the facility and tried to establish its name as the “Raymond Opera House.” Although their official news releases used that name, many people still referred to it under the Sonna designation. In 1904, the Raymond announced (Statesman, January 31, 1904) that “by special request, a matinee and night performance of the scenic production, ‘A Nut-Meg Match,’ will be given.”

Then, according to Peter Sonna’s obituary, in the latter part of 1905, “the theatre was taken out of the corner building, and a third story added to conform to the rest of the block.”

Sonna died in July 1907. Within a few years, new owners converted the large store expanse into several smaller shops and restaurants. The rest of the structure became office space.

In 1976, developers had the façade remodeled to present a uniform appearance to the street. Today, the building is considered prime downtown real estate.
References: “Boise’s Progress,” Idaho Statesman, Boise (January 3, 1889).
Arthur Hart, “At Turn of century, Boise Builds a Modern Police Department,” Idaho Statesman, Boise, Idaho December 11, 2016.
Multiple relevant articles: Idaho Statesman (Dec 5, 1901 - July 10, 1907).
“Peter Sonna – November 22, 1835-July 9, 1907,” Reference Series No. 598, Idaho State Historical Society (1981).
Samantha Winkle, “Sonna Building,” Boise Architecture Project, online (2009).


  1. I just found your blog and plan to read the archives as I get time. Lots of great information here. Thanks so much--I feel like I just struck gold. :)

    This article is featured on Romancing The West today, and I have put your blog in the favorites on the sidebar.

    I love Idaho History. It gets short shrift most of the time. Texas and Wyoming get all the attention, it seems, so I was delighted to find your blog.

    Jacquie Rogers

  2. Thanks for the kind words. I have to agree about the general neglect of Idaho history, but I'm not quite sure why that is. (I do have a theory, but that's for an actual blog.)

    Homedale girl, I see. That explains your interest in Idaho history -- but who would have thought of using Oreana (blink and you've missed it) as a story setting?