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Manchester’s Music Hall 1868-2020

This spring, a landmark building in Manchester Village will be dismantled. For over twenty years an alternative to the destruction of the Music Hall has been sought but no investors have come forth willing to take on such a large old building that needs millions of dollars of work. This is a brief history of a once beloved site of community merriment.
 
Franklin H. Orvis, owner of the Equinox House, built the Music Hall in 1868 on Union Street, just opposite the front door of his hotel. He intended to use it for year-round entertainments for hotel guests and the community as well. It cost $16,000 and the general contractor was a local man, Charles N. Bennett. 
 
On the ground level there was a billiard room and four bowling alleys. The auditorium above, with its large stage, had enough room for 500 chairs. On the top floor were guest quarters, and a connecting bridge ran between this floor and Charles Orvis’s Manchester Hotel which occupied the top floor of the corner building of Little Equinox. The opening concert was given by the Mendelssohn Quintet of Boston. The following year there was a grand ball in January. A series of cotillion parties was held every two weeks. They must have used stoves to keep it warm as there were no fireplaces.
 
From its opening the Music Hall was the scene of concerts, dances, speeches, operas, and amateur theatricals. Franklin Orvis charged $60 to rent the space but would waive the fee if the event was a benefit for the community. Soon after it was built it provided space for one of Manchester’s numerous “select schools, this one taught by a Mrs. Hinchman. In 1870 church services were held there while the new Congregational Church was under construction. 
 
In January 1872 Charles F. Orvis, founder of the Orvis Company, gave a Grand Masquerade Ball for 125 guests that included dancing and a midnight supper. From 1870-1872 there was an eating saloon in the ground level run by J.W. Harris which advertised itself as “prepared to furnish meals at all hours of day or evening.” In 1873 the same space became home to the Terpsichorean Hall, the scene of weekly, invitation-only-but-admission-fee-required “hops” or benefit dances. Patriotic addresses were given from its stage every Memorial Day following the institution of this national holiday in 1876. Burr and Burton Seminary [now Academy] held its graduations and junior proms there as well as numerous music concerts during the 1870s and 1880s.

It was not until 1905 that the Music Hall was redecorated for the first time. The following year the slate roof was installed, and in 1909 a new floor was laid and gaming tables were set up in the ground floor rooms. In 1912 it was actually called “The Casino,” but gambling did not bode well for its future. 
 
In October 1912 President William Howard Taft gave a speech to a packed audience before going off to spend the night with Robert Todd Lincoln at Hildene. The following month the last dance was held in the Music Hall, given by the Ondawa Club. The Equinox Hotel decided to add 25 guest rooms that year and it is probably at this time that the front portico was added. From then on, the Music Hall functioned as part of the hotel accommodations before eventually being used exclusively for storage.

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