When Manchester writer, Sarah Cleghorn, went to hear President William Howard Taft speak at the Music Hall in October 1912, she, as well as others in the community, would not have imagined that would be one of the last events to be held at the historic building in Manchester Village.
The Music Hall, located on Union Street, was commissioned in 1868 by Franklin H. Orvis, owner of the Equinox House, to bring entertainment to his hotel guests and to Manchester residents. The Italianate Style, three-story building with large, carved wood paneled doors impressed all and received positive publicity from newspaper reporters throughout Vermont.
In August 1868, the Burlington Free Press stated, “a new music hall has been completed at Manchester by F.H. Orvis, proprietor of the Equinox House, which is said to be superior in style and finish to anything in the State.”
While an article in the Manchester Journal read, “The hall is in the second story of the building and is perhaps the finest room of the kind in the state. It is fitted up in excellent taste, is handsomely furnished, and contains a large stage, the scenery, and appointments of which will bear favorable comparison with the stages of more pretentious halls.”
Franklin H. Orvis wanted the Music Hall to benefit his hotel guests as well as Manchester residents, often waiving the $5 a night building rental fee for events that benefited the community. In 1870, when the solid brick First Congregational Church was being replaced with the present-day wood clapboard building located near the Music Hall, Orvis allowed the church to hold services in the hall free of charge.
During its heyday, the ornate building hosted a wide range of activities including social dances, concerts, theatrical presentations, and speeches. These larger events were held in the second-floor hall that had a stage and seating for 500 people.
The first concert performed in the hall was given by the Mendelssohn Quintet Club of Boston. The quintet was a widely known chamber ensemble that toured frequently throughout New England presenting early American performances of several of Mendelssohn’s works.
Throughout the late 1800’s, the Music Hall was active year-round with fundraisers and dances. Cotillion parties were popular around that time and many were held in the hall where women would wear bustles and elaborate drapery with underskirts heavily trimmed in pleats and frills and men donned bowties and black tailcoats with mid-thigh tails made of fine wool.
As larger, more sophisticated affairs occurred on the second story of the Music Hall, the first floor offered a less formal experience by providing a billiard room, an eating saloon run by J.W. Harris that advertised “prepared to furnish meals at all hours of the day or evening” and a four-lane bowling alley.
“There were no gutters, just bowling lanes with a thin strip between each lane,” said Richard Farley, whose father, Thomas Farley, managed the Equinox properties from 1963 to 1972. Farley recalled his friend, Elmer Bull, whose father was head maintenance man for the hotel, telling him he worked in the bowling alley. “He set up the pins after each frame for a nickel.”
By 1912, the same year President Taft gave his speech, some residents were calling the Music Hall the Casino due to the 1909 addition of gaming tables on the first story. However, Sarah Cleghorn was not used to calling the building by its new nickname as noted in her writing describing her attendance of President Taft’s speech.
“The journalist was too late in reaching Music Hall (for we haven’t all learned yet to call it the “Casino”) to hear the President’s address — or rather, brief friendly greeting to our village; but those who were present said that the President received a most enthusiastic reception from the crowd who packed every inch of the hall,” Cleghorn wrote. “The cheering was long and hearty. The President’s talk was short and non-political. He looked very well and cheerful.”
Shortly after President Taft’s speech, the Music Hall held its last dance hosted by the Ondawa Club, a fraternal organization made up of prominent members of the community. In December 1912, Equinox House management announced the hall would be remodeled to increase lodging for hotel guests and staff. By 1916, the once admired building which served as a place for high-quality entertainment had undergone major renovations. The three-story structure was converted into four stories when construction workers raised the former second floor to create an additional floor, thus erasing the once magnificent auditorium and stage. Since the reopening of the Equinox Hotel in 1985, each new owner had considered options for uses of the vacant building, However, the cost of restoring the neglected structure proved to be an insurmountable obstacle.
To preserve the memory of the historic building in its glory days, an online resource will be created that highlights the historical significance of the Music Hall. The information will be linked to The Equinox Golf Resort and Spa and the Manchester Historical Society’s websites.
While the Music Hall entertained hotel guests and community members for over 40 years, the building’s fate was sealed in December 1912 when Equinox House management decided to turn the stately building into lodging for hotel guests and staff. Now, as Manchester Village watches the demolition of the once ornate Music Hall, another step away from the past is being taken.