Lyceum halls were first introduced to New England in the early 1800s, inspired by the lecture halls found in Europe. Within a decade of their introduction, over 3,000 lyceum halls had been built in the U.S. alone.
Before the advent of movies and television, the halls provided entertainment for people. Lyceums put on a variety of programming, including debates, musical entertainment, oral readings and plays.
Lyceums were the brainchild of Joshua Holbrook, who borrowed the concept from the mechanics’ institutes he had encountered in England. Holbrook started the first lyceum in Millbury in 1828. Before long, there were 100 similar societies throughout New England.
The city of Salem first opened its lyceum hall in 1830, followed by Marblehead in 1844.
Marblehead’s lyceum hall was located at 69 Washington St. In the 19th century, a number of learned and respected individuals spoke here.
The lyceum on Washington Street was built against the face of a steep rocky hillside (still there). It had its entrance on the ground level, with a long flight of steps up to the main floor of the auditorium. The stage protruded out over the sidewalk. Seats rose steeply in the rear to an exit on Mechanic Street.
Distinguished speakers who spoke at the Marblehead lyceum in the 19th century:
- Frederick Douglass (1818-1895), an American social reformer, abolitionist, orator and writer. After escaping from slavery in Maryland, he became a national leader of the abolitionist movement in Massachusetts and New York, becoming famous for his oratory and incisive antislavery writings.
- Wendell Phillips (1811-1884), an American abolitionist, orator and attorney. According to George Lewis Ruffin, a Black attorney, Phillips was seen by many Blacks as “the one white American wholly color-blind and free from race prejudice.” From 1850 to 1865, he was the preeminent figure in American abolitionism.
- Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-1894), an American physician, poet and polymath. Acclaimed by his peers as one of the best writers of the day. After graduating from Harvard in 1829, he briefly studied law before turning to the medical profession. He began writing poetry at an early age. One of his most famous works, “Old Ironsides,” was published in 1830 and was influential in the eventual preservation of the USS Constitution.
- Thomas Starr King (1824-1864), an American Universalist and Unitarian minister, influential in California politics during the American Civil War. King spoke zealously in favor of the Union and was credited by Abraham Lincoln with preventing California from becoming a separate republic. He is sometimes referred to as “the orator who saved the nation.”
- John Pierpont (1785-1866), an American poet, who was also successively a teacher, lawyer, merchant and Unitarian minister. His poem “The Airs of Palestine” made him one of the best-known poets in the United States in his day. He served as pastor at the Hollis Street Church in Boston from 1819 to 1845. His social activism for temperance and abolition angered some parishioners, and after a lengthy battle he resigned in 1845. He was also the grandfather to Industrialist J.P. Morgan.
Marblehead’s first movie house
Before the Warwick Theater opened up on Pleasant Street in 1917, the lyceum hall showed silent films to the public. (The first “talkie” was “The Jazz Singer” in 1928) The owner, Fred Libby, ran the lyceum movie theater until he was hired to run the Warwick Theater. The Warwick Theater was named for the actor Robert Warwick. Warwick was a matinee idol during the silent film era and later prospered as an actor after the introduction of sound to cinema.
Basketball and badminton
By the 1930s, seats were removed from the auditorium, and it was converted into a basketball court and later a badminton court.
End of an era
After sitting empty for a number of years, the building was deemed a fire hazard and was torn down in 1951. It was replaced with a much smaller structure for artist Samuel Chamberlain in 1956. There is a historic plaque for Chamberlain’s art studio on the front of the house today.