About Harlan Hall

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About Harlan Hall
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The Harlan Hall Opera House is located at 603 Locust Street. It faces north and is on the southeast corner of the Courthouse Square at the corner of Sixth Street and Locust (originally known as Hamilton and Market Streets) in Marshall, Clark County, Illinois. The free standing brick commercial building measures approximately 40 feet by 125 feet and stands at its original prominent location in the downtown Marshall business district. The building is in the area designated as the Marshall Main Street and is just one bolck south of the original National Road, a designated scenic byway.

The property originates with the purchase of a section of land from the Federal Government by William B. Archer and Joseph Duncan in 1829. Marshall was founded in 1835, and the first recorded entry for lot 3 & 4 of Block 38 was on August 13, 1835. The property changed ownership several times until February 20, 1861, when it was purchased by Howard Harlan for $140. He constructed his magnificent opera house in 1872 on lot #4 at an ideal location that was one block from the National Road, three blocks from the Archer House Hotel, one and a half blocks from a proposed railroad station, and across the street from the county courthouse. The building was designed as a spacious opera house on the second floor with the convenience of a "drive-in" livery stable on the first floor.

In a newspaper article about Marshall from the mid 1870's it reads as follows:

"There has been erected in Marshall during the past few years, some very fine buildings, in which all her citizens feel a just pride, among which may be mentioned Harlan's Hall, erected at considerable cost of Howard Harlan, Esq. The Hall is 40 by 100 feet, with a twenty foot deep stage supplied with a beautiful drop curtain, and very fine scenery. It is well ventilated, and easy of entrance and exit. It is as fine a City Hall as there is in the West for a city the size of ours."


It seems that after the purchase of the site by Harlan in 1861, he owned and operated a livery stable in a frame building. An ad in the Clark County Herald, Friday, August 13, 1869, is "Howard Harlan - Livery, Sale & Feed Stable, Southeast Corner, Public Square, Marshall, Illinois."

In the Friday, Sept. 1, 1871, issue of the Clark County Herald, "We are informed that Mr. Howard Harlan has about concluded to erect over his livery stable a public hall of sufficient capacity to accommodate one thousand people. Mr. H. has already begun the improvements upon his large livery establishment, transforming it into a brick structure and now that the work is underway, he seriously contemplates the addition of the second story, of brick also, and to consist of a hall forty by eighty feet in size, with a commodius stage and seats. The importance of a hall of this description--one sufficient, commodius to justify large travel exhibitions and important public meetings and other assemblies that would require it--in coming here and occupying it, has long been felt in this community, and would no doubt pay well to its owner,  and we do trust that Mr. Harlan, having in view the well known demand for a good hall, may conclude to build one, especially as he has now a splendid chance to do it cheaper than 'anybody else possibly can and at the same time he will greatly aid the town in its prosperity as well as bring to himself the gratitude of our people...And we trust he will not let slip this opportunity to make his corner one of the best and most attractive in town.

The news of a proposed hall also spread. In the Friday, Sept. 22, 1871 issue of the Clark Co. Herald: "The Lecture Bureau of Terre Haute (IN), under the management of Loke, Walmsley & Co. have secured the services of Mrs. General Lander, Shakespearan reader, Mark Twain, Oliver Optig, and Charles Sussner, as lecturers to favor the people with this season. When our Opera House is completed, we may have some amusements over here, but until that is done our people will have to visit Terre Haute for Entertainment."

"Harlan Hall takes on its roof this week and is to be hurried to completion" appeared in the Clark Co. Herald on Friday, Nov. 24, 1871. The Herald further states on Friday, Dec. 1, 1871: "A theatrical company intending to travel, when not otherwise engaged, has been organized at Terre Haute. They will probably make their debut at Harlan Hall in this city, if completed in time.

Completion of the hall must have moved along rapidly as the Friday, Jan. 12, 1872, Herald states: "Howard Harlan's City Hall approaching completion, the plasterers and carpenters being engaged in putting on the finishing touches. It is contemplated dedicating it February 14 with a grand ball." The Feb. 2, 1872, paper continue: to anticipate the hall's completion with: "We are to have that prince of humorists, F. G. White, with a first class stock company at Harlan Hall, about March 1."

Excitement in the community continued to grow as the Friday, Feb. 9, 1872, Clark Co. Herald stated: "The dedication ball is the only topic of conversation among those who intend to trip the light fantastic toe on that occasion. It will of course be the affair of the seasons, as everybody will be there dressed in their best.... Mr. Chenoweth, of the Chenoweth House, will prepare a supper for guests, tickets for which can be obtained of Mr. Howard Harlan at $1.50 per couple and 75 cents, for a single person!

The ball must have been quite an event for Marshall. The Feb. 16, 1872, Clark Co. Herald had an article stating that: "Harlan's new Hall brilliantly illuminated with large and select assembly -­ The opening a success on Wednesday evening, February 14, 1872. It is universally admitted that a larger and more select company never assembled together than graced the interior of "Harlan's beautiful Hall" on that occasion.

The hall was beautifully illuminated, eight lights burning at each of the twenty-two windows--the interior was supplied with ten chandeliers, containing thirty-five lamps.

The company commenced assembling at about 8 o'clock and was composed of most of our best citizens, together with ladies and gentlemen: from Springfield, Effingham, Casey, Martinsville, York, Westfield, Darwin, Illinois, and from Terre Haute, Indiana, in all about two hundred and fifty. The music was furnished by Prof. Tonti's full quadrille band of Terre Haute. ...At 12 o'clock supper was announced and the large assembly repaired to the Chenoweth House.

...The hall is one hundred feet deep by forty feet wide and is capable of seating seven hundred people. The ceiling is eighteen feet high ornamented by three circles beautifully painted from which are suspended three large chandeliers, with gasoline lamps. The chairs are placed in half circles, with an aisle on each side and one in the centre [sic];

The stage is twenty feet deep by forty wide with an opening of twenty-six feet in width, which has been supplied with a beautiful drop curtain. The wings, four in number on each side, are beautifully painted; while two pieces of statuary ornament the Sides of the opening. In the rear of the stage is a small room partitioned off to be used for a dressing room for companies playing there, a cloak room for balls and parties. The footlights, 21 in number, are arranged by a tube.

The entrances are easy, being by two double doors, and a broad stairway. At the foot of the stairs is to be erected two small offices, one of which will be used by the proprietor, and the other for use as a ticket office. The whole building is 125 feet by forty feet and was erected at a cost of $6,000 which shows the spirit of enterprise by the builder....

He has fixed his term for rent of $20 a night which is as reasonable a figure as anyone could ask.... We doubt if there is a hall in the West arranged as well as Harlan's Hall, that can be rented for that price."

In the same issue: "Howard Harlan liberally gave the "Young America" a social hop at his new hall on Tuesday evening. There were about twenty couples in attendance and all appeared to relish the treat. Music was discoursed by the Marshall string band."

On September 11, 1875, is the recording of a mortgage on the hall for $6,000. Mr. Harlan also built a hotel across the street to the west. This was later the site of the Marshall House Hotel which burned April 27, 1983. Harlan Hall, although a dominant force in the cultural development of Marshall, changed ownership several times. In 1887, Mr. Harlan seems to have run into serious financial trouble and moved to Wayne County. The Hall and Hotel were both sold the following year.

The First Methodist Church was across the alley just south of Harlan Hall. Their records show that in 1873, 103 members of their church were baptized in the Hall. The first baptism was Stephen Archer, a descendent of the founder of Marshall. In the late 1880's this church had the need for a new building and decided to relocate their new sanctuary to Seventh and Plum Streets. The major reason for the relocation was the odor from the livery stables at Harlan Hall.

The opera house continued in operation into the early 1900's and in 1904 was purchased by B. F. Johnson. The building was then called Johnson Hall. About 1902, the Knights of Pythias built a new temple just a block west. Their new three story building had an auditorium, permanent seats, sloped floor and stage. Silent films where shown here starting about 1905 and it was converted into a silent movie theatre. Local musicians played the piano for the films until "talkies" arrived in the late 1920's. The theatre was named the Strand Theatre and was in use until it burned July 22, 1957. With the arrival of films, the use of the opera house began its decline. However, it was still used for many purposes such as school activities, plays, musicals, boxing matches, roller skating, dinners, a dance studio, and receptions.

Prior to 1920 the lower floor was modified to be used for retail space and in the 1920's was the Hercules Paint Store. The upper floor near the street was used for storage and the manufacturing of hog houses. A large beam and pulley at the top of the middle second floor door on the front of the building was used for raising building materials, and for lowering the finished hog houses that had been constructed on the upper level. Some first floor windows were modified at that time with larger plate glass for retail display spaces. The building was later used for the manufacture of Sane Crystals which was a form of laxative. After some brief periods of vacancy the lower floor became an International Harvester dealer selling farm equipment supplies.

In 1954, the building was purchased by the Loyal Order of Moose and became Lodge #1708. They owned the building with an active lodge from that date until the lodge disbanded in December, 2000. The organization sold the building to the City of Marshall, April 18, 2001. Current plans are to renovate and restore the building and use the first floor as a community center with the restored second floor for music, theatre, and civic use, possibly even a museum area.


The Harlan Hall Opera House meets Criterion A for listing in the National Register of Historic Places. It is a locally significant building associated with an important grassroots trend in American cultural and entertainment history during the last 19th and early 20th centuries; namely, the widespread demand by rural and small communities for cultural and intellectual entertainment that required a specialized theatrical facility, the opera house. The period of significance for Harlan Hall is from 1872 when the building was constructed to 1904 when it basically ceased operation as an opera house.

Economic prosperity and the growing network of railroads made it possible for smaller communities in Illinois, and elsewhere in the country, to accommodate amateur and professional entertainment which earlier had been enjoyed, for the most part, only by large communities. In addition to its theatrical function, the opera house was often utilized for a wide variety of purposes, including community events. The Opera House functioned in its community as an integrating force. the catalyst that brought together all aspects, political, social, intellectual, religious, aesthetic, humanistic, and recreational were experienced by people meeting together at a common place, the Opera House, to share in such experiences and to discuss them. The Opera House was a forum where local decisions and values were forged.

Townspeople and local farming families were entertained and gathered for public meetings and events at Harlan Hall. Built in 1872, it provided a stage not only for theatrical performance but also for the rural community social life and intellectual and cultural development. Although Marshall was never very large, only 3,800 people today, it supported a cultural institution found in communities many times larger.

The history of the small town opera house is linked to the extraordinary expansion of the theater during the last three decades of the 19th century. Stage entertainment had included since earlier in the century several specialized forms. Variety, "Tom Shows" (touring productions of "Uncle Tom's Cabin), the circus, burlesque, and minstrel shows were organized to operate on an unprecedented national scale after 1870. Previously, a small community may have entertained itself with local theatrical groups; however, about 1870, the road show, or touring company, began making its impact on the cultural life of smaller cities and towns. Few companies were in operation before the 1870's, in part because transportation was restricted to stagecoach, riverboat, and relatively few rail lines between major cities. However, with the expansion of the railroad system by 1880, road show bookings in smaller communities were possible and sought after. The first passenger train stopped in Marshall in, 1870, bringing a new and vibrant way of life to a sleepy country town. Suddenly Marshall had access to all parts of the country, and it became important to show others that we had just as much as larger towns.

Rural towns such as Marshall, more than likely made bookings with regional touring repertoire companies, rather than those based out of New York. These stock troupes were to become 2,000 strong by 1910.

The design of buildings constructed for entertainment purposes in small towns and villages was influenced by the growth of the theater business. Before the Civil war, social and cultural events were held in general utility halls which were usually located on an upper floor of a larger building. Public halls very often were no more than long, rectangular rooms designed to accommodate dinners and dances, as well as theater performances. A stage or sloping house or balcony for improved viewing of theater entertainment were rare design features in small public halls. Structures specifically designed as playhouses generally began to appear in small towns after 1870. The increase in theatrical activity caused small town businessmen to build opera houses that met the needs of touring companies. However, like general utility halls, they were often used for non-dramatic events, and many were situated above commercial establishments. While the stage was a crucial feature for the increasingly popular touring company, the floor of the house area usually remained flat and were furnished with removable chairs or benches. Sometimes small balconies were constructed at the rear and sides of the room. Exceptions always prove the rule for some small towns, like Marshall, were fortunate to have a special building constructed to serve as an opera house, and it had a balcony, too.

It was important for opera houses to have the latest stage improvements in order to attract the better and more elaborate touring companies. Opera houses were designed to have dressing rooms, set scenery, lighting and curtain machinery, and trapdoors. Although Harlan Hall apparently had most of these features, it was essentially a small time operation which, more than likely, was never able to accommodate large, national touring companies. When the opera house sold in 1904, the sale referred to theater equipment, including scenery, stage equipment, stoves, and furniture. Therefore, these essentials were a part of the hall in its early years.

Several original handbills were found in a local scrapbook of 1879 to 1889. Although the name on the book is illegible, most handbills have a handwritten notation by the young lady as to who she attended the program with and what she wore. Some of the programs given at the Hall are as follows:

Elocutionary and Dramatic Entertainment by Miss Eva Norton's Class in Elocut'n, Pantomine - The Mistletoe Bough, Saturday Eve. Nov. 22, 1879.

Programme of Temperance Entertainment, Thursday Eve., March 11, 1886. The entertainment will conclude with the laughable Farce, entitled "A Little More Cider."

Marshall High School First Annual Commencement Exercises, Thursday Eve., May 19th, 1881.

Programme of the Grand Combination of the Celebrated Artists Davis Family-Hydelotte-Leibing. With vocalists, elocutionist, and pianist.

Simmons S Mower's UNCLE TOM"S CABIN, Philip H. Lehnen, Manager, March, 1883.

1880's newspaper article: The reception given by the Friday Club at Harlan Hall, tomorrow evening, gives promise of being one of unusual enjoyment. The attendance from the surrounding towns will be good, and from the city will be very large. An excellent programme has been arranged, and the best music secured.

May 5th, 1882, Marshall High School Second Annual Commencement.

Mid 1882, Gibler Bros. Humpty Dumpty and Musical Specialty Co., with overture and orchestra.

W. C. Matthews and Miss Nellie Harris in highly amusing comedy entitled "Trifles!"

H. C. Gibler and J. P. Rees in Dutch Songs and Funny Sayings.

Prof. C. e. Carter - America's Representative Juggler Prof. A. T. Gordon Violin soloist.

The Boneless Wonder, - Harry Athol, ...the greatest contortionist ON EARTH.

New Orleans Minstrels Programme for this evening.

Silvery Quartette Clog Tournament by Mssrs. Stiles, Maxwell, Welby S Pearl.

Modern School of Acting by Welby and Green

Take Down the Sign! John Stiles Minstrel Songster

HARLAN HALL CONCERT--Benefit of Marshall's Poor! Saturday Eve., February 25, 1882.

HARLAN'S HALL Benefit Concert - Thursday Evening, July 20, 1882, L. A. Wallace Conductor, Mrs. Eliza Archer organist. (An all vocal music program with local talent.)

HARLAN'S HALL Grand Concert! - Wednesday Eve., Nov. 29, 1882, Benefit of Presbyterian Church! Music program, and concludes with a laughable farce, entitled: Bamboozling!

Davis Family Concert Company, Programme of music and recitations by Prof. Carhart.

Georgia Minstrels, America's Favorites, Richards & Pringle, Proprietors., 0. E. Richards, Manager, ... Performance will conclude with the laughable Burlesque, entitled Harris' Ball. This Programme is subject to change.

HARLAN HALL School Concert, Saturday Evening, Dec. 8th, 1883. Benefit of the Public Schools; (entire musical program of vocal music and recitations by local residents).


HARLAN'S HALL, Saturday Evening, April 26, 1884, Matinee at 2:30 P.m. ENTERTAINMENT consisting of MUSICAL, DRAMATIC. The Beautiful Fan Drill. (program consists of mostly local names.)

OPERA HOUSE - Richardson's Dramatic Combination, Silver Band and Orchestra. presenting Joaquin Miller's great American. Play, founded on thrilling episodes in Mormon life, entitled the DANITES!

HARLAN'S OPERA HALL -- Three nights only, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, March 5th, 6th, and 7th, 1885. "THE BLUE and THE GRAY;" "THE BATTLE OF SHILOH!" A beautiful tableaux and full grand orchestra.

Sparks & Company. Edouin A Sanger, Proprietors, In their latest and greatest success, as performed over 250 nights in New York. A BUNCH OF KEYS.

The original NASHVILLE STUDENTS, The Celebrated Jubilee and Plantation Singers. Wilson S Theatre Proprietors.

The McNeil Family. W. B. McNeil, Manager and A. D. Cameron, Bus. Agent. Vocal and instrumental musical program. This evening's entertainment will conclude with a musical sketch entitled: THE GERMAN LOVERS.

Clark County Herald, Vol. XIV, No. 1, Tuesday, January 3, 1882. Frolic Farewell. Society kisses the pale lips of the dying year--her pleasures and pastimes. Friday Club Reception. Some 40 couples congregated at Harlan Hall, Wednesday evening last, to pay tribute to the hillarity [sic] of the holidays and participated in the first annual reception of the Friday Club. 'The large hall was very comfortably filled and the toilets of the ladies were among the finest ever worn in this city. By some decree of fate, however, all was not as pleasant as it might have been, for the floor had been improperly waxed, and dancing was almost an impossibility. It was necessary to adjourn to the club room area, where the floor was in better condition. ... The music, furnished by Toots and five men,   was fine, and the new figures called were not the least interesting part of the pleasures of the evening. Dancing continued until nearly 3 o'clock.

Clark County Herald, Vol. XV. No. 763, Tuesday, March 27, 1863. "The Brazil Opera Company" billed for Harlan's Opera House, on the evening of the 29th. The play is "KATIE DEAN." "The Brazil Brass Band, in full uniform, will accompany the operatic troup to this city. The play is “KATIE DEAN.” “Don't fail to see it.”

"The Little Duke," at the hall, on Tuesday evening last, was a very creditable performance, taking into consideration the youth of the actors. The singing of two of them, at least, was very good. Also, the acting of the Duke and Duchess was well appreciated. Taking all in all, they were fully up to the average of theatrical troupes that visit us.


Clark County Democrat, December, 1908 issues, "The skating rink opened in the Johnson's Hall Saturday evening with a good crowd." “The dance given by the Pleasure Club in Johnson's Hall last night was very largely attended. Excellent music was furnished by the home orchestra. A number of out of town guests were present.”

Picture of Masquerade Skating Party, February 6, 1909. John Ferris manager.

In a personal interview with a local historian, Joan Strange, she stated her Mother often told about attending "BEN HUR" at Harlan Hall about 1898. In the play was a real horse on a treadmill on stage. As it galloped along, the scenery moved to give the appearance the chariot and horse were moving along the roadway. She also told about her Father renting surreys at Harlan Hall for a Sunday afternoon of "courting." A feed bag of oats for the horse was an extra 5¢.

In 1981 a survey was mailed to all Illinois towns with a population of under 10,000 resulted in approximately 200 responses with infor­mation about the local opera house. Of the 200 communities, 71 structures were still standing in various stages of repair. In many cases, the buildings had limited historic integrity due to remodeling, neglect, and abandonment. The Harlan Hall opera house was not included in the 71 buildings. However, due to its excellent physical integrity, both on the exterior and interior, and a fine example of a late 19th century free standing small town opera house, it is an excellent candidate for listing in the National Register.

At the present time there are only eight Illinois opera houses listed in the National Register of Historic Places:


Woodstock Opera House
Woodstock 1-7-74

Galva Opera House
Galva 2-11-82

Sesser Opera House
Sesser  3-12-82

Phoenix Opera House
Rushville  5-09-85

Alexis Opera House
Alexis  7-30-87

Fife Opera House
Palestine  1-26-90

Odd Fellow Opera Block
Ellisville  8-08-96 

Beardstown Grand Opera House
Beardstown 5-11-00

While many of these locations are combination commercial buildings and opera house, the Sesser and Woodstock buildings are structures built to either house only an opera house, in the case of the Sesser Opera House, or several community services as in Woodstock. Harlan Hall Opera House was built as a free standing opera house and had the unique feature of the drive-in livery stable on the primary floor.

During the latter part of the 19th century and into the 20th century, national theater/public hall directories were published to assist touring companies, theater/hall owners and managers, and agents in making bookings. Four directories, dating from 1870, 1878, 1884, and 1908, contained theater/hall listings for a total of 216 Illinois cities and towns. Sweet's Amusement Directory & Travelers Guide of 1870-1871 listed 24 Illinois cities. Eight years later, 132 communities were included in Jon B. Jeffery's Guide and Directory. The season of 1884-1885 in Harry T. Miner's American Dramatic Directory recorded 178 communities with theatrical facilities.

By 1908 Illinois had 127 listings in Julius Cahn's Official Theatrical Guide. It is mostly likely that small towns not advertising in the directories, such as Marshall, did not receive many, if any bookings from the national circuit of touring companies. More than likely regional companies, which catered to the small towns and regularly returned each successful season, were the bulk of Marshall bookings.


Clark County is situated on the eastern boundary of Illinois about midway between Chicago and Cairo. It is bounded on the east by the Wabash River and the Indiana state line. By an act of Legislature passed in 1819, Clark County was created in a vast wilderness area. In 1835, the county seat of Clark County was moved to Marshall from the river bank community of Darwin. Early settlers primarily arrived in the area via the Wabash River.

In 1827, construction of the Cumberland Road (National Road) entered the area. This highly traveled route to the West was and still is the main street of Marshall passing by the north side of the court house square. The construction of this road gave Marshall a flow of people and money that caused rapid settlement and much public improvements. The greatest development for the area was the building of the rail road, first chartered in 1850, but not completed until 1870.   The railroad paralleled the National Road and brought new interest and further prosperity to the area. With this new ease of transportation the use of the National Road rapidly declined and deteriorated. In 1879, the second rail line running from Chicago to the South was completed with the depot only one and one half blocks from Harlan Hall.

The first owners of two sections of the land were William B. Archer and Joseph Duncan (who later became Governor of Illinois and a U.S. Senator). They purchased the land directly from the U. S. Government for $200, as approved on January 12, 1829. They deposited the money with the state auditor on January 15, 1835. The town was founded and laid out October 3, 1835, by the owners Archer and Duncan and named for Chief Justice John Marshall. Archer soon acquired all of the holdings from Duncan.

The basis of the early economy was agriculture. The first business was a hotel constructed in 1836, the first tailor in 1837, and first physician in 1838. The first mill was constructed in 1839, and in 1838, a very exclusive private school was started by a minister. In 1871 it merged with the public school system. The only dentist in the county practiced in Marshall starting 1852.

The Archer House Hotel was constructed by the town founder in 1841 at the corner of the National Road and the Dixie Highway running from Chicago to Florida. This building is now a lovely bed and breakfast, is the oldest continually operating hotel in Illinois and is on the National Register. It is located just three blocks from Harlan Hall.

The current "main street" along three blocks of the old Cumberland Road (National Road) consists mostly of two and three story buildings constructed during the late 1880's and 1890's, primarily all are bracketed Italiante buildings. The midwest was late in picking up the newest trends from the coasts, so this style was constructed here much later than in the East. This shows that the building of Harlan Hall was right "with the times" in using the dominant style for new buildings in Marshall.

On the Court House Square, just across the street from Harlan Hall, is Marshall’s historic bandstand. Although the current structure was constructed in 1927, it houses the weekly summer band concert series from mid June through mid August. The hour long free concerts are performed by the Marshall City Band that has performed each year since 1875 – just three years after the construction of Harlan Hall.