The Reed Opera House History
The Reed Opera House was designed from the start for more than the single purpose its name suggests. In fact, it wasn’t going to be an opera house at all.
New hampshire-born Cyrus Adams Reed (1825-1910), who built the Opera House in 1869-70, had a contract with the state to erect a building to house the Oregon State Legislature, the State Supreme Court and the State Library.
When the newly elected officers of a changing administration refused to comply with the agreement, Reed had Architect G.W. Rhodes include seven shops on the ground floor; the Opera House proper enjoyed the center of the building, on the second and third floors, and the balance of the building became the Reed Opera House Hotel.
The decision to build a 1,500 seat theater was an adventurous one. The population of Salem in 1870 was reported to be 1,139, being served by 11 grocery stores, 15 dry goods stores, three bars and three drug stores. Liberty Street was unpaved and rutted, and fist fights and gambling were nightly events.
Bell’s telephone would not be patented until 1876; Edison did not invent the light bulb until 1879, Chief Joseph was still battling U.S. forces in Oregon, and New York’s Metropolitan Opera House wouldn’t be built until 1883!
The pioneering Reed was not only an optimistic visionary, but a teacher, merchant, builder, industrialist, politician and artist who painted the opera house sets.
Reed’s Opera House became the center of Salem’s early social life, housing touring plays and opera companies, concerts by John Philip Sousa‘s band, vaudeville and minstrel shows, revival meetings, and exhibits by political cartoonist Thomas Nast, and other famous artists.
It was the favorite venue for Hallie Parrish Hinges, a singer who performed a concert at the Reed for President Benjamin Harrison on May 5, 1891, and was called “Oregon’s Nightingale” by Theodore Roosevelt a few years later.
The Reed’s stage was a pulpit for Susan B. Anthony and Abigail Scott Duniway at the height of the national drive for women’s suffrage, which in 1871 Oregon was headed by Cyrus Reed.
Another U.S. President – Rutherford B. Hayes – drew crowds to the Reed on September 30, 1880, while seeking to become more than a one-term leader.
The official opening of the Reed Opera House was Sept. 27, 1870, with the Inaugural Ball for Oregon Governor LaFayette Grover. Subsequent inaugurations for Republican Governors W. W.Thayer (1878), Z. F. Moody (1892), William Paine Lord (1895), and T. T. Geer (1899) were also celebrated at the Reed.
In addition to serving as Oregon’s Adjutant General from 1862-1870, Gen. Reed was head of Oregon’s Republican Party, served four terms in the state legislature (1862-1878), and was a founding director of Willamette Woolen Mills.
The first performance on the Reed stage was “Frances Carroll”, a drama depicting theater life. The Oregon Statesman commented in it’s Sept. 28, 1870 edition that “after a long time without any amusement except the legislature our citizens must, by this time, be in good trim to attend a first-class theatrical performance.”
The Reed would be Salem’s premier theater for the next 30 years, finally closing with a minstrel show on April 26, 1900, shortly after the opening of the new Grand Theater a block away.
E. P. McCornack, who purchased Gen. Reed’s interest in the Opera House in 1885, converted the theater and the balance of the retail space into Salem’s first major department store, Joseph Meyers & Sons. In 1902, McCornack added a two-story building immediately south of the Reed, at 177 Liberty Street, to house a furniture store.
In 1920 the Miller’s Department Store purchased and occupied both buildings, and dominated Salem’s retail scene until the mid-1970s.
In 1976, the Reed and the Montgomery Ward Building, erected next to the McCornack addition at 155 Liberty in 1936, were acquired by Realtor Coburn Grabenhorst St. and Architects Phil Settecase and Howard Smith, who converted the buildings into their present configuration for an estimated $1 million. Settecase would soon have a major impact on Salem architecture. In addition to the Reed interior, he designed the Salem Civic Center, Salem Public Library, Downtown Fire Station and 17 buildings on the Willamette University campus.
The newly redeveloped Reed – with retail boutiques and restaurants on the lower level, first floor, mezzanine and second floor – prospered until the 500,000 square foot Salem Center opened in the late 1980s. The Montgomery Ward building was sold off, and the owners eventually opted to turn the deed to the Reed and the McCormack addition over to the bank that financed the redevelopment.
In March 2003 Roger Yost, a former Jantzen Swim Wear marketing vice president and garden center developer, purchased the Reed Opera House from Bourne Properties, which had acquired the building 10 years earlier. Yost worked to significantly remodel areas of the Reed, including architecture, ballroom upgrades and elevator work.
In 2018, Yost sold the Reed to Scott and Graham Chernoff of Cumberland Holdings, a property development firm. Cumberland Holdings, which invests in properties across the West Coast, is run by two native Oregonians, Scott Chernoff and Graham Chernoff. The two brothers had a vision of restoring the Reed to its former glory and making it the crown jewel of Salem once again.
Most recently, the Reed Ballroom and kitchen has been remodelled to make the large, dynamic event space even more appealing. They also completed a seismic repointing to ensure that the historic brickwork would be more structurally sound in case of an earthquake. The future for the Reed is bright!