The Hagenbuch Opera House, Allentown’s First Theater
Allentown, Pennsylvania’s first major theater opened in 1870 near the corner of 8th and Hamilton Streets. It was known by several names including the Academy of Music and Military Hall. However, most locals referred to it as the Hagenbuch Opera House in reference to the family who built it.
The Hagenbuch Opera House was the brainchild of Benjamin J. Hagenbuch (b. 1823, d. 1889) and his brother Charles H. Hagenbuch (b. 1827, d. 1901). The Hagenbuchs were no strangers to Allentown, having been in the city since the before the Revolutionary War.
Their great grandfather, Henry (Heinrich) Hagenbuch (b. 1736, d. 1803), was the eldest son of Andreas Hagenbuch (b. 1711, d. 1785) and had immigrated to Pennsylvania as a child in 1737. Henry was a Revolutionary War veteran who left the family homestead in Berks County, Albany Township and acquired land in Allentown, PA by 1773. At that time, the town had only 54 homes!
In Allentown, Henry established the Cross Keys tavern. This was located at the present day corner of 8th and Hamilton Streets. During the next 100 years the tavern would pass to Henry’s son, Jacob Sr. (b. 1765, d. 1811); then to his son, Jacob Jr. (b. 1797, d. 1870); and finally to his sons Benjamin and Charles. During this time it would evolve from a simple tavern to a popular hotel near the center of town.
By the mid-1800s, Allentown was rapidly growing in population. It was now home to around 14,000 people. Upon the death of their father in 1870, Benjamin and Charles decided that the city, as well as their hotel business, needed a theater. The Hagenbuch Opera House was born.
According to an entry in the 1886 book, Past, Present, and Future of the City of Allentown:
[The Hagenbuch Opera House is] the favorite fashionable resort of this city and valley. It has a frontage of 63 feet and a depth of 90 feet, while the stage is 32 by 60 feet and the height of the auditorium 24 feet.
Fifteen artistic sets of scenery range in the grooves behind one of the finest drop-curtains in Pennsylvania. Containing a seating capacity of 900, it can with fair comfort accommodate an audience of 1500 souls. The gallery besides is spacious and well-appointed. Handsome carpets stretch up the incline from the orchestra to the main entrance.
In addition, Jno. B. Jeffery’s 1882 Guide and Directory to the Opera Houses, Theatres, Public Halls, Bill Posts, Etc. in the Towns and Cities of America notes that the Hagenbuch Opera House cost $30 per night to rent. This is equivalent to about $700 today.
While in operation, the Hagenbuch Opera House was at the center of music, entertainment, and culture in Allentown and the Lehigh Valley. Below are several performances known to have taken place there (source: Kohl Theatre Program Collection, DeSales University):
- Grand Concert of Vocal and Instrumental Music by the renowned Hayes Family of Philadelphia – February 2, 1871
- Grand Concert by Theodore Thomas’ Orchestra; Miss Anna Mehlig, pianiste – April 18, 1871
- Mr. George Dolby’s Grand Concert – November 10, 1871
- Jack and Jill – January 21, 1875
According to a 2013 article on WFMZ, the renowned singer and actress Lillian Russell even graced the stage there as a vaudeville performer in the 1880s. Known for her beauty and voice, she eventually went on to become one of the most famous performers of that time.
The theater hosted more than just entertainment. Many gatherings of guilds and public groups were held there including Pennsylvania State Conventions, the Masons, and the Knights of Pythias.
The Hagenbuch Opera House operated for only 18 years. By 1886, the Hagenbuch family had turned management of the property over to G. C. Aschbach, who renamed it the Academy of Music. In its last few years of operation, the building was remodeled and used as a ballroom. It also became known as Military Hall because the local militia used the space to perform drills.
In late 1888, the property was sold to John Bowen. Bowen quickly turned the stately structure into a large grocery store which operated there until 1926. In that year, the Hagenbuch Opera House facade was finally demolished in order to make way for the S. S. Kresge Company, a large retailer who would eventually rebrand as Kmart.
Today, nothing remains of the Hagenbuch Opera House. The theater itself was long ago eclipsed by other, more prominent venues in the area. Yet, over 100 years later, the Hagenbuch family’s contributions to the early history and culture of Allentown, Pennsylvania are undeniable.