The Klinkhart Hall Story

Klinkhart Hall when it opened, circa 1885
image courtesy of Sharon Historical Society

The historic Klinkhart Hall building occupies a unique place in the history and culture of Sharon Springs. Like everything else in Sharon Springs, it is a layered, sometimes complicated, history but it always makes for a good story.

In 1885, George Klinkhart opened his new building at the corner of Main and Division Streets in Sharon Springs. It was an imposing building even then: a two-story brick Italianate commercial block building with an elaborate decorative parapet and metal cornice with large brackets and dentils, cast-iron molds over the windows, and a decorative cast-iron string course demarcating the ground floor. In the center of the second floor parapet and cornice were bold three-dimensional letters that spelled out “Klinkhart Hall.”

The building originally housed Klinkhart’s Hardware Store and the Post Office on the first floor; a tin shop operated in the basement. A millinery shop replaced the Post Office sometime between 1904 and 1909. The building’s name, “Klinkhart Hall,” did not refer to the first floor businesses but to the “opera house” on the second floor.

It was a place where people physically gathered, interacted with their neighbors, talked and listened, and where they were entertained, inspired and brought together as a community, through good times and bad.

At the time, “opera house,” at least in rural areas, did not refer to “grand opera.” Instead, it was a commonly used term of art for any venue that offered musical or theatrical entertainments. In small towns throughout the United States, these opera houses typically occupied the second or third floor of a commercial building. They were important to their communities not only for presenting plays, concerts, lectures, vaudeville and variety shows, but also for hosting other community events such as dances, banquets, political meetings, lectures and other types of public gatherings.

All indications are that George Klinkhart was a savvy businessman and it appears that his new entertainment venue was a success from the start. It lasted until 1911 when a major fire gutted the hardware store and, as she attempted to rescue the cash box from the hardware store, killed Mrs. Klinkhart.

A gathering at Klinkhart Hall, early 1900s
Image courtesy of Sharon Historical Society

In 1913 the local members of the Order of Free and Accepted Masons purchased the building and renovated it to house the Masonic Lodge on the second floor, where the opera house and been. At that time, the name “Klinkhart Hall” was removed from the upper parapet cornice (although when the light is just right you can still make out where the letters were attached.) Until 1923-4, the first floor appears to have been used only as a showroom for Model-T Ford automobiles, sold and serviced by Handy’s Garage, housed on the ground level in the rear of the building. Handy’s operated at this location from 1917 until 1924.

In about 1924, Smalley’s Theatre, which operated movie houses in many small upstate New York towns, converted the first floor into a theater showing first silent and later sound movies. The 1911 fire was the main reason for this first transformation of Klinkhart Hall, but elsewhere across the country the advent of motion pictures at about the same time began to spell the end for many opera houses, and the widespread demise of the live entertainment troupes that had been their mainstay since the mid-nineteenth century. But live entertainment never completely disappeared: some Smalley’s advertising placards recently recovered from the Klinkhart basement indicate that live music events continued to take place and, along with movies, remained a feature until the end of the 1950s when the theater finally closed.

Since then, the first floor has remained vacant, while the second floor continued to serve as the Masonic Lodge until the 1990s. After that, the upstairs served briefly as a dance studio before the building became vacant for 20 years. This could have been the end, but historic Klinkhart Hall was a solid and stable structure, standing quietly, awaiting its next transformation.

Any building that survives long enough becomes something of a palimpsest, a changing record of different uses over time . . .

In 1992-3, faculty and students from the Cooperstown Graduate Program conducted a survey that resulted in the designation of the Sharon Springs Historic District. The District encompasses 167 buildings – including Klinkhart Hall – and 9 structures associated with the village’s heyday as a water spa resort during the period 1825-1941. In 1994, the District was listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Klinkhart Hall sits in the center of of it all, the last remaining building in the Main Street section of the District that has not yet been restored and repurposed.

In 2007, the Masons sold the building to a group of local business owners who were eager to insure that it did not suffer the fate of so many abandoned structures in Sharon Springs. In 2016, this group donated the building to the newly formed not-for-profit Klinkhart Hall Arts Center, Inc., which set about planning to rehabilitate the building as a permanent home for the arts in Sharon Springs. The first phase of that project is now underway (here are details of the plan, along with drawings & floor plans .)

Re-purposing, rehabilitating, and reusing buildings is part of their natural life cycle. When fire closed the original Klinkhart Hall opera house in 1911, the building quickly found another use, and then another, and then another. These kinds of changes do not diminish the historic significance of the building; instead, they enrich it, adding layer upon layer to the history of the structure and the community. Any building that survives long enough becomes something of a palimpsest, a changing record of different uses over time, in which each new layer, though eventually erased, still bears the traces of earlier usage and forms the basis of the next. A bit like the village of Sharon Springs itself.

Now we are about to add the next layer, and it is one remarkably similar to the one laid down when the building was erected in 1885. At the end of phase 1 of the current stabilization and restoration project, the second floor former Masonic Hall will see new life as a Performance Hall, presenting live entertainments and community functions, just as it did over a century ago when George Klinkhart opened his opera house – and hardware store – at the corner of Main and Division Streets. Later phases of the project will refine the function of the 2nd floor and, taking its ques from another early layer in the building’s history, replace the long-abandoned first floor Smalley’s Theatre with a new, state of the art theater for theatrical/music/dance performances, as well as other entertainments including – yes – movies.

Architects rendering of the "new" Klinkhart Hall
Architect’s rendering of the “new” Klinkhart Hall

Author Anne Satterthwaite, in her book Local Glories, Opera Houses on Main Street Where Art and Community Meet, documents how opera houses were once the center of art, culture, entertainment and civic life for rural American towns, large and small. Before YouTube there was television; before television there was radio, but before all of this there was the main street opera house. It was a place where people physically gathered, interacted with their neighbors, talked and listened, and where they were entertained, inspired and brought together as a community, through good times and bad.

With the ongoing revitalization of the village and the increasing vitality of the region as an arts and tourism destination, the re-development of Klinkhart Hall as a center for the performing and visual arts has the potential to play a pivotal role in the cultural and economic advancement of the region.

New Yorkers like to say that what goes around comes around. It is certainly true for Klinkhart Hall. A neglected historic building is about to come back to life and, in a turn of events I’m sure old George Klinkhart could not have imagined after the tragic 1911 fire, it is about to once again be a place where we come together as a community. Work has already begun!

architect's rendering; fully restored exterior
Architect’s rendering; fully restored exterior
click image to enlarge