This corner of downtown Portsmouth has a long and storied past.
The town voted to build an almshouse, or poorhouse, on the corner of Chestnut and Porter Streets in 1711 and completed construction in 1716. This was believed to be the first almshouse anywhere in the world, as the first in England was not built until 1723. The Portsmouth Almshouse remained open until 1755, when it moved to Court street and replaced the Old County Court House, where the Central Fire Station is located today.
According to the Annals of Portsmouth, by Nathaniel Adams, a two-story “gaol was built in this town, at the corner of Prison-lane and Fetter-lane” in 1759. Prison Lane was later renamed Chestnut Street, and Fetter Lane became Porter Street. Some sources claim the jail stood on The Music Hall's location; however, the jail was actually built on the southeast corner of Chestnut and Porter Streets, currently the TD Bank parking lot.
In 1781, boys accidentally started a fire in a barn here that soon got out of control, burned the town jail and destroyed the original Rockingham House.
The Free Will Baptist Meeting House, or Christian Church, was built here in 1803 and served as their place of worship until 1844. The building was then purchased by a group of businessmen who converted it into a 1000-seat amphitheater. Starting in 1847, it was briefly owned by the Washingtonian Temperance Society of Portsmouth. This theater, called The Temple, became the most popular lecture and exhibition hall in Portsmouth during the mid- to late-1800s. Prior to the Civil War, black abolitionists spoke here, including Frederick Douglass. Fire destroyed this historic building in 1876.
The Pierce family estate purchased the lot and built The Music Hall on the site of The Temple in 1877, and Portsmouth’s new entertainment venue opened in January, 1878. Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show performed inside, and the first movie in Portsmouth was shown here on an Edison’s Graphophone in 1898.
Frank Jones, the famous industrialist and owner of the largest brewery in America at the time, renovated and restored The Music Hall in 1901. Among its many famous entertainers was Mark Twain, who spoke here in 1908. The theater became an early stop for many Broadway plays, including Peter Pan, The Wizard of Oz, and No, No, Nanette through the mid-1920s. When Hollywood films became popular between the world wars, the Music Hall was adapted to present movies. Soon, three new theaters opened in Portsmouth. Specifically designed as movie houses, their competition caused The Music Hall to struggle.
Auctioned in 1945 to a resident of Kittery, The Music Hall was renamed The Civic. Later leased to E.M. Loew in the mid-1960s, it remained a Loew’s theater until the early 1980s.
I have been unsuccessful in locating a copyright-free photograph of The Music Hall. This is a link to an image on the Portsmouth Athenaeum Website showing The Music Hall as The Civic, taken in the early 1980s
Auctioned again, it was saved from demolition in 1987 by a Portsmouth organization called The Friends of The Music Hall. Now open as a nonprofit entertainment center, The Music Hall continues to be refurbished and restored while it entertains the community.
In 2003, the U.S. Senate designated the Music Hall an American Treasure of the Arts.