117 Main Street: The Cornwell Opera House


Bordwell homestead

Shearman homestead

117 Main St.ne of Main Street's most dominant buildings is this one, the Cornwell Opera House. It was built in 1864 on the site of the old American Hotel, which burned to the ground and took with it nearly all the buildings south of it on this block. It was built by Charles V. Bush, so it was called Bush's Hall for some years, until George R. Corn-well bought it, at which time it acquired the name that was until recently to be read in the panel at cornice level.

The building includes a second store which is more thoroughly discussed on its own page as 111 Main Street. This has been a separate self-contained store through nearly all of its history. The Opera House itself is upstairs over the larger store, to which the entrance and box office were reached through a door at the south end of the whole.

This site was after 1819 the homestead where George Shearman settled, built a house and a little later a store. The store was his third in Penn Yan, after having arrived here in 1809 and started out in a part of John Dorman's Old Red House, just up the street from this site. He went to Benton for a couple of years, returned and started a store again in the north end of Abraham Wagener's mill (not the one on the north bank of the Outlet today, but the original one, built in 1801, just after Wagener himself moved to Penn Yan). Eventually Shearman bought Jonathan Bordwell's homestead whole, and built his own house and, as mentioned, his third store. All these activities, including the move to Benton and back, were performed with one or more of his brothers, three of whom originally came to Penn Yan with him.

In 1829 Shearman sold the homestead to James R. Herrick of New York City, Herrick sold it to William T. Cuyler in 1831, and Cuyler sold on a land contract to Caleb Fulton. It was Fulton who had the edifice called the American Hotel built, which incorporated at the back Shearman's old house.

The American Hotel was apparently a Penn Yan institution. It wasn't by any means the first in Penn Yan (there were at least four prior to 1829: Asa Cole's and Smith M. Cole's on the north side of Head Street; Samuel and later Sarah Cobb's at 169 Main Street (Wagener's old house); and finally Eliah Holcomb's Washington House at 226 Main, across from the Court House; not to mention numerous taverns that might put up a traveler or two, nor was it the biggest -- that was the 1860 Benham House, nor the finest -- the Benham House had that honor too, and kept it for a century. But then it was only built after the fire that destroyed the American Hotel, which as soon as it was built began serving as a village landmark. Other businesses advertised, in a day before street addresses, that they were two doors down from it or opposite, or next door. It was a stage stop, with Alfred Tuell's livery and stage company headquartered in the old barns behind it. It just seems to have gained almost immediately a position in  the center of community life.

The hotel burned in 1857, and the fire destroyed not only the hotel itself but the stores on the east side of Main all the way down through no. 105. The brick walls of 103 Main stopped it at the south end, and those of 121 Main next to the hotel on the north. This disaster led at once to one of Penn Yan's most ferocious building booms, as local merchants raced to get their business back. The village certainly did not have enough spare storefronts to house them in the meantime.

Within a short time, by 1864, Charles V. Bush had acquired the old hotel lot and the store lot just to the south. The new combined lot was 75 feet wide at Main Street, the biggest at the time and until the future Roenke & Rogers store was erected on a 90-foot lot in 1881; and since that has gone, this again is the widest single store building in the business district.

Another fire could have caused another disaster, in the late 1980s, when the building was being renovated for a pharmacy called Lane's Rexall. The fire started in the new electrical panel, and did the most exterior damage by forcing firefighters to break all the beautiful arched second floor windows for access. These were replaced after the fire was out with bright turquoise-colored corrugated fiberglass, which was obviously better than broken blackened windows, but still an eyesore on such a prominent building. Luckily for Main Street, the present owner has had the windows restored to their original appearance, though they're no longer double-hung nor made of wood. Another effect of the Rexall fire was the village's passage of an ordinance forbidding, in the business district, the blocking of windows with plywood or other opaque and unopenable barriers. This has improved the appearance of a number of commercial buildings with unused rooms on the upper floors.

The Cornwell Opera House 1875

hot spot map

Top right: The building as it appears today. 111 Main Street is in the same building now as 113-119, and has been since 1864, but houses a separate store and has unfortunately lost entirely its original ground-floor facade with its door to the Opera House at the extreme south end of the building. There is now only one store in the main part of the first floor, but in 1866 there were two. The open passageway to the rear (under the northernmost window) is now closed off.
     The second floor most resembles that of the original. An additional window has been let into the facade above no. 111, but otherwise the size, proportions and rhythm of the fenestration has been let alone, and finally restored after the Rexall fire. The windows themselves are now unopenable, and the muntins no longer enclose many smaller panes of glass. One need only consider the difficulties inherent in double-hung windows of this size to realize the reason why, particularly in the modern era of air-conditioning.
      At some point the extra decoration on the cornice was removed, and the lettering naming the building has also disappeared. But considering the dominant size and location of this building, its extreme renovation, or worse, its loss, would have struck a mortal blow to the beautiful 19th-century Penn Yan downtown.

People related to this lot and structure:

     Abraham Wagener
     The Bordwells
     The Shearman brothers
     Charles V. Bush

Other related structures:

     111 Main Street

Related history:

     The Return



Click a button for an overall view of the whole south end of the 100 block.

Near right: The Cornwell Opera House block soon after it was built. The second-floor theater was no longer called Bush's Hall, and George R. Cornwell owned the building. His bookstore is three windows wide, south of the driveway through to the livery stables in back, which can just be seen at the left edge of the picture. South of Cornwell's store (which, it is said, the builder accomodated in his original plans), is John H. Lown's dry goods store, his second (the first was in the Arcade). Andrew MacKay & Co.'s grocery is only a door and a show-window wide, although he did have use of most of the space over his store on the second floor. The southmost door, the one with the wood-framed transom over it, was the entrance to the theater, with a box office there to sell and take tickets, and the like. Use of the upstairs as a theater lasted into the silent-movie era, though it's best known as a speaking venue for many of the most famous reformers of the era.