Here’s the Queen Theater at 5th and Market streets in downtown Wilmington, which for more than 200 years has been — off and on — a central gathering place in Wilmington.
Said to have been built shortly after Thomas Willing laid out the city in 1732, it was address of a pub known as Welsh’s Tavern, and by the 1790s the Queen of Otaheite, said to have been named in honor of a local whaling crew that touched down in Otaheite or what today is known as Tahiti. Likely for reasons of pronunciation, it became popularly known as the Indian Queen, and its guests included future president Martin Van Buren. Writing in the Wilmington Morning News, columnist W. Emerson Wilson relayed that it was expanded to three stories by proprietor John Hall in 1846 and for a time was occupied by high-ranking officers fighting the Civil War. In 1863, confederate leiutenant Samuel Boyer Davis was said to have breakfasted there after escaping from a hospital in Chester, overhearing Union soldiers seated at an adjoining table plotting his recapture.
Artisans Bank and First National Bank of Wilmington in the 1870s acquired the property with intentions of turning it into corporate headquarters but with the industrial revolution bringing rapid growth to the city, decided instead to renovate and reopen as a luxury hotel. Adding two stories to the building, the Clayton (named in honor of the noted Delaware statesman John M. Clayton, a former U.S. Senator and Secretary of State under fellow Whig Zachary Taylor), opened in 1873 and was designed to rival the finest locations in bigger cities.
In 1884, the Clayton was the address of choice for many of the Quicksteps players, and for the visiting baseball clubs passing through town. On September 4, Quicksteps outfielder John Cullen stumbled into an empty elevator shaft in the lobby and fell a dozen feet into a basement well of filth sustaining serious back injuries that ended his season. Cullen said later that a light alongside the elevator was out at the time he approached the door and so never realized the elevator car was on an upper floor. Given the time of his arrival, shortly before midnight, his company, Jimmy Say, and Cullen’s own history with alcohol, it’s quite likely he was drunk.
The Clayton hosted guests through 1915, but by then its status as Wilmington’s finest hotel had been surpassed by the Hotel duPont a few blocks north. The building the following year reopened as the Queen Theater, a 2,000-seat movie theater. That iteration lasted until 1959. The building sat unused for about 50 years before a renovation begun in 2009 led to the present Queen, a live music venue. Builders at work on that project uncovered murals, textures and an old organ some dating to the Clayton’s glory days.
Today the Queen, not unlike the Blue Rocks who themselves revived a long-dead entertainment in Wilmington, continues a tradition dating to the 19th century. See more in this video: