Haunted Helena: Grandstreet Theatre

The haunting of Grandstreet Theatre, which was originally the Unitarian Church built in 1901, is so famous that it is included in Haunted Places: The National Dictionary. Progressive Unitarians designed the church to double as public space, and so the sanctuary also functioned as a public auditorium with sloped seating, a beautiful proscenium arch, and fully-equipped stage. Many believe that one of the theater’s several ghosts is Clara Bicknell Hodgin, wife of the Unitarian minister who came to Helena in 1903.

A former kindergarten teacher, Clara quickly endeared herself to Helena’s youngsters and her Sunday school soon was overflowing. Clara had no children of her own, but she delighted in others’ sons and daughters. She was energetic, enthusiastic, and the children said her smile lit a room like sunshine. Clara’s favorite projects involved directing her small students in pageants and plays in the sanctuary/auditorium. When Clara died of cancer in 1905, she left lists and files by the hundreds of future projects. Clara’s friends commissioned Louis Comfort Tiffany to craft a memorial window in her memory. The beautiful window depicts a mountain scene reminiscent of the Helena Valley. In 1933, the church became the Public Library and the window was taken down and forgotten.

In 1976 the former church-turned-library became Grandstreet Theatre. Antique dealer Paul Martin coincidentally discovered the window stored in the Civic Center’s basement and it was reinstalled in the theater. Typical of Tiffany windows of the period, when viewed with no back lighting, it appears a marbled blue. Its appearance changes dramatically with each subtle change in lighting. At the bottom, Clara’s name sometimes becomes illegible while the upper window remains perfectly clear. The words look as if a childish hand has smudged the paint on the glass.

Visit Helena, attend a Grandstreet performance, and check it out for yourself.