The Shattuck Opera House was Hornell's largest auditorium during the late nineteenth century and the site of several significant freethought events, including two national freethinker conventions and three lectures by agnostic orator Robert Green Ingersoll.
Ingersoll lecture. On September 24, 1879, Ingersoll delivered "The Mistakes of Moses," one of his most popular and controversial lectures on religion, at the Shattuck.
The New York Freethinkers Association, despite its name a national organization, held its fourth annual convention at the Shattuck in Hornellsville on September 2–6, 1880, and again held the fifth convention on August 31–September 4, 1881. In both years, opera house proprietor Sewell E. Shattuck, an open freethinker, donated the use of his facility at no charge.
Fourth Annual Freethought Convention, Including Ingersoll Lecture. 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." Attendance was roughly evenly divided between materialists (who today might be called atheists) and spiritualists, with whom freethinkers of the time made common cause because both opposed Christian orthodoxy. Speakers included Ingersoll, who delivered his controversial freethought lecture "What Must We Do to Be Saved?", and others.
Fifth Annual Freethought Convention. The New York Freethinkers Association met again at the Shattuck on August 31–September 4, 1881. Compared to the 1880 convention, the 1881 event was smaller: about 275 persons attended most of the sessions, with 500 present for the closing session.
Final Ingersoll Lecture. On May 5, 1894, Ingersoll made his final appearance at the Shattuck. Scheduled to deliver the patriotic lecture "Lincoln," instead he yielded to requests from the crowd and reprised "What Must We Do to Be Saved?," the hard-hitting freethought lecture he had presented at the 1880 convention.
The Building and Site. The Shattuck Opera House was erected in 1873 by Sewell Shattuck, a physician and surgeon whose practice focused mostly upon dentistry. It was one of the largest concrete structures erected in south-central New York State to that time. The building was 100 feet long, 60 feet deep, and 43 feet high with four stories. The auditorium occupied the building's third floor and offered 1,357 seats, making it Hornellsville's largest auditorium, eclipsing the previously erected Metropolitan Hall.
By 1914, the Shattuck had converted to exhibiting motion pictures. By 1926, it was known as the Shattuck Theatre. It closed in 1930. It was sold in 1940 and subsequently demolished. A one-story building was erected that occupied part of its site.
Today the Shattuck's location is remembered informally by Opera House Lane, a walkway following the site of a former street. Once a pedestrian walkway off Broadway Mall (the former Broad Street) that included a small veterans' park, the Shattuck's site is now fenced off. The fate of the veterans' park is unknown. The fenced-off area serves an adjacent tavern as an outdoor seating area.
Many thanks to Alice Taychert of the Southern Tier Library System for research assistance.