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Historic halls in Westfield – are there any left?

July 27, 2016
By Marybelle Beigh - Westfield Historian , Westfield Republican

Preparations are escalating for the upcoming second Chautauqua County History Fair, August 13 & 14, 2016, at the Chautauqua Suites Convention Center in Mayville. For this event, your Westfield Historian, Marybelle "Bee" Beigh and Patterson Library Collections director and Octagon Art Gallery docent, Nancy Nixon Ensign, are collaborating on what we hope to be a spectacular display about historic fires that changed the face of the Village of Westfield in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

As often happens during times of intense research, planning, and writing, the stirred-up mind whirls through strange and troubling dreams that often startle one out of sound sleep and send one tumbling out of bed and off to the computer to search for the answers to the strangest questions or ideas. And so it was again as the name "Virginia Hall" seemed to urgently require knowing if it is the oldest, and perhaps only-remaining hall of its type in this town.

If you stand at the Moore Park corner of Portage and Main Streets and look up at the top of the old brick building on the north-east corner, you will see a cement sign with the name "Virginia Hall" imbedded amongst the bricks above the top line of boarded-up windows. Yes, "Virginia" is a person's name the name of the daughter of Dr. John Spencer, whose old mansion home on East Main near WACS, became our most famous and continuing hospital, which, sadly, was torn down in the 1990s.

Article Photos

Submitted photos
At top is the 1854 Wall Map of Chautauqua County — a lithograph titled “Union Block.” Hinckley Hall is just left of middle and the tree is in front of the building as is described in the column.
Above is a photo of the Spencer Block at the northeast corner of Main and Portage, circa 1970. The sign “Virginia Hall” is visible near the top center of the building.

Dr. Spencer had the Spencer Block built at the Portage and Main Corner in 1873, designating the first floor to have two stores (No. 1 to be a drug store for almost a century) separated by a stairway to the second floor for offices, and the third floor to be a meeting "hall" for performances and lectures and other such events and naming it for his daughter, "Virginia" - hence, "Virginia Hall." Soon thereafter he added a second store and warehouse building behind the Main Street building, facing North Portage, connected via the second and third floors by an archway over the alley that parallels Main Street, which became the back stage, prop storage and dressing rooms areas. This building also bears a dated sign that can been seen from the alley. Virginia Hall was even the first location at which Edison's moving pictures were first shown in Westfield. Most recently Virginia Hall wase used by a puppet group.

What were the names of the other old Halls in Westfield? Although not an exhaustive list, the following are remembered and often mentioned in the newspapers and other pamphlets over the years: Hinckley Hall, Fenner Hall, Wells Opera House, the three Grand Theaters (2 in Carlson Building and the last one stand-alone Art Deco at the NW corner of Main and Portage where the Lincoln-Bedell park is now located.) Others were the hall in the old Academy building, and the halls of the various fraternal organizations and clubs such as IOOF, Masonic, Legion, Grange, and LOOM, as well as Eason Hall which used to have a stage.

Of these older halls, other than hall of the old Academy building that was built in 1837, and replaced by the Union School building built in 1867, it is believed that Hinckley Hall may have been the earliest, although it is known that the Westfield House a Stage Coach Inn that was built at the NW Corner of Main and Portage in 1829, by McClurg did have a grand ballroom that may also have been considered a meeting hall. McClurg's Westfield House burned in 1884, the worst early Westfield fire that also destroyed many businesses nearby on North Portage as well as a part of the McClurg Block on the SW corner of Main and South Portage.

That burned out area stood vacant for many years, except for a few small wood buildings until the three-story brick Fenner Block was built in the 1890s on North Portage between where the building that now houses Tony's Shoe Repair was later built and the old first fire hall building that was the south portion of the recently torn-down Portage Inn. The third floor of the Fenner Block was Fenner Hall, another well-used gathering, meeting, and event location. A disastrous fire in 1922 gutted the Fenner Building which was never to be rebuilt, as an even more disastrous fire in 1923 destroyed the first edition of the Carlson Block that housed the first Grand Theater, and severely damaged the Post Office building (Tony's shoe repair building now, 2016) just south of the Fenner Building, as well as the old first Fire Hall's bell tower. After the fire, the second fire hall was built on Elm Street, just left of the Eason Hall; (this building is now occupied by a veterinarian office).

But back to Hinckley Hall the history of which is described in a Westfield Republican article of March 24, 1909, about a month after fire almost as disastrous as the 1884 fire, that nearly destroyed about half the businesses on the section of Main Street between what is now the white "Kent 1922" building housing Time Warner Cable, and the shorter 2-story building at 33 East Main now housing Blanche's shop. "Hinckley Hall stood upon historic ground. Here was located the old Cass store, one of the first in Westfield dating from 1817," which was torn down about 1850 to make room for a series of 3-story brick store buildings that were a product of the boom-time Westfield experienced with the anticipated and arrival of the railroads in 1852-53. Known as the Wells Bock at the time of the 1909 fire, the building occupies current addresses 23 and 25 East Main, where the Sports Memorabilia Store and recent Parkview Antiques stores are now located. Built by Watson S Hinckley, a local lawyer, the foundation was laid in 1851 and the building finished in 1852, the third floor being Hinckley Hall, which is where many of the Civil War recruiting and other political rallies were held.

The Hinckley Hall building was purchased by Solomon V R Wells about 1880, and by 1881, Wells had restored the hall to its former glory, naming it the Wells Opera House, after its having been used by the Masonic fraternity for about 10 years. Some time later the Masons returned as they had possession of the third floor at the time of the 1909 fire, and restoring and using it until the local group recently folded. The 1909 newspaper article concluded with the following quote: "The old settlers will always think of Hinckley Hall as the one great historic spot of its kind in Westfield and will regret its departure. But better it is that it should go up in a cloud of glory than that it should some day fall by neglect and decay into disuse and dishonor, and now as the last vestige is disappearing, we wave a final farewell to dear old Hinckley Hall."



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