Two conventions of the New York Freethinkers’ Association were held in this building, built as the Freer Opera House, and in a park about 500 feet to the east (far background at the left side of photo #1 below).
The 1878 Convention. The association's second annual convention took place August 22–25, 1878. At the 1878 meeting feminist and suffragist Matilda Joslyn Gage gave her first public freethought lecture. Famously, atheist publisher D. M. Bennett and two others were arrested under obscenity laws for selling a marriage reform and birth control tract, Cupid’s Yokes by Ezra Heywood. The Convention met at the Opera House on the evening of Saturday, August 24, and on the morning and evening of Sunday, August 25.
At the Sunday morning session, the prominent atheist and reformer Elizur Wright gave what would be considered the convention's keynote address at the opera house. (The Sunday session was held indoors because of a hard rain the night before.) Wright attacked what he called the false claims of Christianity.
The 1882 Convention. The New York State Freethinkers Association held its sixth annual convention in Watkins on August 23–27, 1882. Because of rainy weather, all conference sessions were held at the Opera House. Speakers included Matilda Joslyn Gage and D. M. Bennett, celebrating a triumphant return after his release from prison and a world tour. Among the attendees were Geneva philanthropist and freethinker William Smith; Rochester abolitionist and suffragist Amy Post; Rochester freethinker Elias Gault; freethought advocate Samuel Porter Putnam; suffragist Juliet Stillman Severance; freethinker Charles Bright, visiting from Australia; and W. S. Bell and Josephine Tilton, both of Boston, who had been Bennett’s co-arrestees at the 1878 event. A banquet honoring D. M. Bennett was held off-site at the Glen Park Hotel, attended by some 120 persons.
The conventions of 1878 and 1882 were, respectively, the Association’s second and third such events. The Association, then known as the Liberals and Freethinkers of Central and Western New York, had held its first convention, or "Grove Meeting," on August 17–19, 1877, at the farm of freethinker James Madison Cosad in Huron, New York. (Some sources give the place name as Wolcott.)
The Building. The Freer Opera House accommodated retail storefronts and commercial tenants on the ground and second floors; the ballroom/meeting hall occupied the topmost floor. Note the extra-tall third-floor windows. Nineteenth-century meeting halls often placed the main assembly space on an upper floor, a practice curtailed with the advent of modern fire codes. The building now hosts a popular restaurant and pizzeria on the ground floor and loft-style apartments on the upper floors.