June 2, 2019

The Lost History of Howey Hall

For decades, the history of what was once an iconic building on the Plaza lay veiled. It was known as Howey Hall and it stood in service to Prescott for over 80 years.

The reason for this lack of history was a lack of ink in surviving newspapers. This was because of a bit of a grudge held by Miner editor, Charles Beach, who “was most unhappy…because of the fact that (Howey Hall) productions were advertised by placard rather than the newspaper.” However, Beach did feel compelled to print a dozen words or so about community events held there. These lay buried in the dusty columns for over a century until the power of 21st century newspaper search engines brought these nuggets to light. Together, they bring into focus the important community role Howey Hall held in Prescott.

James Howey, blacksmith, owned a prime lot on the southeast corner of Prescott’s downtown Plaza and decided to build a spectacular, two-story brick building to rent. Work started in 1875 and was complete by the beginning of the following year. Originally, Howey envisioned a hotel and Prescott had the need. But instead, the first regular tenant was the Goldwater’s Mercantile store and for the people of Prescott, it was a remarkable site.

The Weekly Arizona Miner seemed overwhelmed: “The building itself would be a credit to any city; it is certainly the finest in Arizona and of which Prescott is justly proud.” An L-shaped, 10-foot porched faced the streets of the corner lot. 

When one first “entered through an arched doorway,” the paper described, he was “simply amazed at the appearance which (met) his view. The store (was) 60 by 30 feet in size, and the ceiling...16 feet high.” The light walls and white ceiling gave “such a light and airy appearance that the 4 fine chandeliers…seem to have been placed there merely for ornament.” The built-in shelving along the walls was “elegantly finished in white and surmounted by a broad cornice which (was) ornamented by a narrow strip of gilt molding along its center.” (Goldwater was a regular advertiser in the paper and therefore received a long, glowing review.)

As far as square footage and the vast variety of merchandise, Goldwater’s would compare to a modern day “big-box” store. Although the Goldwater’s store has long been associated with Howey Hall, the store was there for only 3 years. By the end of 1879, Howey advertised the building for sale or rent.

Howey could find neither a buyer, nor a long term tenant, however, but the building did make the perfect spot to hold dances. Nearly all the clubs and organizations held them and Howey Hall made money hosting them. The Hall even hosted dance classes twice a week for eligible men looking to impress the ladies. 

A number of the young men formed a secretive clique called the TJB Club. Perhaps their biggest secret was what their initials stood for. “The name is esthetic” they claimed—meaning concerned with, or the appreciation of, beauty. The club, “composed of our best young men,” the paper related, “have the knack of making everything pass off pleasantly. Their socials are acknowledged to be the most enjoyable of any heretofore here,” the paper reported. Their low admission price of $1.50 helped make them popular.

In 1881, a large Thanksgiving dinner could be had at Howey Hall, if one decided not to cook. Even the Journal-Miner had to confess that the venture “was a financial success.”

The following year, Howey “raised the sides of the building.” Additionally, the Prescott Rifles, a municipal militia born as a result of the Indian conflicts, moved their armory there after their previous one suffered fire. One of the casualties of that blaze was the company flag. At a gala Presentation Ball held at Howey in 1884, the ladies presented the boys with a new “magnificent silken edition of the Stars and Stripes with the name of the Company emblazoned on it in glittering gilt letters…” It was the social event of the year. Even Gov. Trittle attended, giving an inspiring address. “On the close of the Governor’s remarks, dancing was inaugurated and indulged in until a late hour,” the paper reported. The Rifles regularly met at Howey Hall to practice their drills.

Also in 1884, a similar group to the Prescott Rifles called the Milligan Guard also set-up shop at Howey Hall and for a 4th of July celebration that year, decorated it “very tastefully.” They also held a New Year’s Masquerade Ball there at the end of the year.

It wasn’t until 1885 that the newspaper began reporting about concerts and plays held at the Hall. In February, a concert was performed by the 3rd Cavalry Band and in April, readers were encouraged to attend a dramatic performance since the admission was reduced to 50 cents.

Also in '85, the Prescott Grays, another military drilling company, made Howey Hall their armory and held a notable dance on their first anniversary. It was described by the paper as “one of the most enjoyable dances ever given in this city.” However, a month later the Grays left Howey Hall.

They were replaced by a fire hose company called the Dudes. This would be a precursor of what was to come for the building.

Perhaps the most interesting use of Howey Hall occurred in the Spring of 1885 when it was used as an indoor ice-skating rink! Although the newspaper failed to explain exactly how this was accomplished, it is probable that large blocks of ice were stacked side by side with a film of water applied to the top to offer a smooth skating surface. “All objectionable characters will be rigidly excluded,” the paper warned, “while the managers of the rink will strive to make it a pleasant resort for all patrons.”

A month later the “skating rink in Howey Hall (was) still largely attended, while the number of proficient skaters (was) rapidly increasing,” the paper reported.

In '86, the paper first reported boxing matches being held there. A “Sheet & Pillow Case” party also was held that year and “was all that its promoters expected it to be… The masks of sheets and pillow cases were perfect and the most expert guessers failed to locate their friends. At 11 pm the order was given to raise masks,” and everyone’s identity was gleefully revealed.

Many times when a church had a social or revival that would be too large for the church building, it was held at Howey Hall.

Story and history of the Goldwater store in Prescott, AZ. Also included: the founding of Ehrenberg, AZ.

In September 1886, Levi Bashford took the building over feeling that “a well-equipped place of amusement will be a necessity” for the growing town. He arranged “to remodel Howey Hall for such a purpose.” A stage was built and opera chairs purchased.

A few months later the paper reported that “the most elegant supper will be served to ball-goers…in Bashford’s new opera house downstairs in Howey Hall.” Indeed, the building as an Opera House was magnificent. One person who had visited Ford’s Theater in Washington DC, remarked that Howey Hall was more elegant and the drama performances just as good. 

In a letter to the Courier in October, 1955, one older gentleman remembered the theater “as being the most elegant in its time. The stage was built along the east wall and was “housed by a proscenium arch arrangement. It was foot-lighted by small kerosene lamps in tin trough, and the blue lights on either side of the proscenium and several big lamps suspended from the ornate ceiling were dimmed by chains.”

The Hall continued to feature revivals, national speakers, and boxing matches until it lost popularity to the larger Elks’ Theater. The place had become run-down and now housed the Adams Bros. Second-Hand store. Then in early 1904, a fire ignited on the first floor. “The Toughs hose company was first on the scene,” the paper reported, “and soon had a strong stream of water on the fire, and it was soon extinguished. The contents of the lower floor were badly damaged by fire and water.”

Shortly thereafter, the city of Prescott purchased Howey Hall for $6000. It would be converted, ironically, into a firehouse.

By July, work was near completion. The bottom floor housed “the hose carts and hook and ladder wagon," while the upper floor had a meeting room and “several rooms where a number of the firemen will sleep so that there will always be enough men on hand at night to get at least one hose cart to any fire that starts,” the paper reported. Also included was a weather station for the city.

In 1959, Howey Hall was razed and before the current City Hall was built, the location was used briefly as a parking lot. 

But after having served Prescott for 83 years, Howey Hall would get a second life. When the building was razed, it was carefully deconstructed and the material saved. It is now on exhibit, with a slightly different look, as the Opera House at the Pioneer Living History Museum. Knowing its rich role in Prescott history makes its survival all the more fitting.

Howey Hall (The Opera House) as it stands today
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