Metropolitan Hall, Hornellsville

Handbill promoting March 20-21 freethought lectures by Charles B. Reynolds and wife at Hornellsville's Metropolitan Hall. Click on handbill to see image at larger size.

Hornellsville (now Hornell), after 1850 a major waypoint on the New York and Erie Railroad, hosted several significant freethought events. Metropolitan Hall was an important meeting venue. Located at the corner of Main and Seneca Streets, it is known to be the site of a March 20-21, 1886 lecture series by minister-turned-freethinker Charles B. Reynolds and his wife.

The New York Freethinkers Association, despite its name a national organization, held conventions at unknown locations in Hornellsville on September 2-6, 1880, and again in 1881. The 1880 convention was described by the New York Times as "the largest and most important convention of the kind ever held in the country." Speakers included Robert Green Ingersoll and Lucy N. Colman.

Either or both of these conventions may have been held in Metropolitan Hall.

Seating 600, Metropolitan Hall was actually the smallest of three opera houses in Hornellsville. Contemporary accounts suggest that the hall was popular because it was only on the second floor of the building it occupied, hence a shorter climb upstairs than its larger competitors that were apparently on the third floors of the buildings they occupied.

Located above 143-163 Main Street (the Babcock Block, on the northeast corner of Main and Seneca Streets), Metropolitan Hall was built in 1866 by local business leaders Walter G. Rose and Philip Van Scoter. The space was in such demand that the first event, a political gathering, was held in October 1866 before construction was complete. Metropolitan Hall opened formally on November 2, 1866.

Traveling theatrical companies often played the Hall. In one of the first such events, actress and friend of Robert Green Ingersoll Laura Keene presented Our American Cousin, reprising the role she had played at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D. C., on the night President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.

The Hall hosted many famous speakers of the day in addition to freethought speakers. Mark Twain spoke there on January 20, 1870. Suffragist Susan B. Anthony debated woman suffrage against a local attorney on May 19, 1870. Publisher Horace Greeley spoke on February 16, 1872. Abolitionist Julia Ward Howe, author of The Battle Hymn of the Republic, spoke in June 1873.

On December 26, 1879, Metropolitan Hall was badly damaged by fire. It was rebuilt, but apparently never regained its prior stature. By 1900 the Hall had been taken over by T. G. Wooster & Brother, a notions and fancy-goods merchant that also occupied a ground-floor storefront at 151 Main Street.