Convention Hall

Convention Hall, Interior; Church of the Brethren Convention, 6/1921
Convention Hall, Interior; Church of the Brethren Convention, 6/1921
Ice Palace, Interior, ca.1931-1936
Ice Palace, Interior, ca.1931-1936
Hershey Museum, Interior, ca. 1938-1950
Hershey Museum, Interior, ca. 1938-1950

Convention Hall, 1915
Convention Hall, 1915

What would become the Hershey Convention Hall was originally described as a Chautauqua Hall, similar to other facilities across the United States, that fostered adult learning.  Before the building was completed, it was officially named the “Hershey Convention Hall.”  Milton Hershey envisioned the massive structure providing space for big conventions, important public exhibitions music festivals and all occasions requiring accommodations for 5000 to 7000 people.  In developing plans for the assembly hall, Milton Hershey was inspired by a well known assembly hall in Ocean Grove, NJ and sent his builder, James K. Putt, to visit the structure to learn more about it and what might be incorporated in the Hershey building.

The new facility was easily accessible being located in Hershey Park near the miniature train line as well as the trolley line running to Highland Park (future site of the Hotel Hershey).

It was built specifically to attract large events and big crowds to Hershey.  Its first function was the Triennial Convention of the Brethren Church.  Milton Hershey was very interested in hosting this major event and promised the meeting planners that the Convention Hall would be completed in time for their conference.  Construction began in March 1915 and the building was usable for a May 30th dedication service.  While the building was able to house the attendees, finish work continued on the building after the meeting, most notably plastering the large assembly hall ceiling.

The Hershey Press included a detailed description of the building. Built to be a permanent structure, the structure had concrete foundations and a limestone underground passage way 16 feet wide and 14 feet high that opened to a large (362 ft by 155 ft) open auditorium with a 71 foot high ceiling and a 18 inch deep gravel floor.  This open area could be used for a variety of functions.  Filled with benches it served as a convention or concert hall.  For agricultural exhibitions the floor could also accommodate presentation rings.    The open area was surrounded by a 17 row amphitheatre.  With benches in the open area and the amphitheater there was seating for 6000 people.  A loft offered seating for 600 more people.  The building also included four large (15' x 25') meeting rooms. 

The hall was electrically lit with new style nitrogen lights*  that offered brighter light while using less electricity.  The building’s four towers were designed for chimes (never installed) and each was lit with nitrogen lights.

The building was dedicated on Memorial Day weekend, May 30, 1915.  Hershey Park opened for the season the following day, Memorial Day (Monday, May 31).  The dedication program included a 40 piece band, the combined church choirs of Hershey, several vocal and instrumental soloists, as well as several speakers.

The Convention Hall was not simply a large assembly hall.  Milton Hershey’s vision for the building incorporated many of his goals and vision for his community.  The Hershey Press carried this announcement about the building’s dedication:

Dedication
Hershey Convention Hall is dedicated to the service of the people.  May they meet often within its walls and by their proceedings and discussions find wisdom.  May they listen to words that will guide them in the paths of peace and righteousness.  May they hear music that will uplift them.  May they gather the products of their fields and factories and stimulate one another to higher achievements in agriculture, manufacture, commerce and the arts.  May they learn more of the great principles of consolidation and co-operation.  May they be imbued with the spirit of brotherhood, of courtesy and of helpfulness.  May the services on Memorial Day exalting the patriotism of our heroes be a true dedication of this Hall to the welfare of a free people, the cause of liberty, the love of the Flag and the glory of God.

True to his vision, the Convention Hall hosted a variety of events over its years of service. A brief chronology of publicized events can be found at the end of this document.

In 1931, the Convention Hall was modified to permit ice skating in the winter months. An ice plant and a rink was installed. A Hershey Park facility could now be used all year long. The community’s interest in skating was contagious. That winter the Swarthmore Hockey Club began playing their games in Hershey. Hershey’s enthusiasm for hockey and ice skating soon made the Ice Palace too small for all those wanting to attend hockey games. On several occasions hundreds of people were turned away due to lack of space. The Ice Palace was replaced by the Hershey Sports Arena in December 1936.

True to Milton Hershey’s desire to repurpose and reuse whatever he could, the Convention Hall/Ice Palace soon found a use as the new home for the Hershey Museum that had acquired a significant collection of Pennsylvania German materials and had outgrown its original facility.  Moving the Museum to the Park complex broadened the range of attractions available to Park visitors.  The Museum also helped to lengthen the tourist season since it also operated year-round.  Hershey Museum continued to occupy the Convention Hall until 2009 when a new facility on Chocolate Avenue was built for a redeveloped museum, The Hershey Story.

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Hershey Convention Hall Chronology
5/30/1915     Hershey Convention Hall is dedicated as part of the Memorial Day celebration.
6/8-13/1915  Church of the Brethren hold their triennial convention at the Convention Hall.  This is the facility's inaugural event.
9/6/1915      Harrisburg Evangelistic Chorus of Harrisburg performs on Labor Day.
6/10-12/1921  Church of the Brethren convention.
6/12/1921    Apollo Male Chorus of Harrisburg performs at Convention Hall.
6/13/1921     Dr. M.G. Brumbaugh, former govenor of PA, preacher, educator, and lecturer, speaks on doctrine of Peace and Disarmament.
5/30/1922    Geraldine Farra performs a concert at Convenion Hall on Memorial Day.  Farrar was a noted opera singer and silent film star.
5/30/1923     Julia Claussen, prima donna mezzo soprano, and Paul Althouse, noted tenor, both of the Metropoltian Opera House, perform a joint recital at the Convention Hall on Memorial Day.
6/16-17/1923  In honor of the community's 20th anniversary, Creatore's Band and Pennsylvania's Bethlehem BAch Choir perform concerts daily.
8/25-26/1923  Creatore's Band returns to Hershey to prform a second time this summer at the Convention Hall Four concerts are offered over the two days.
10/21/1923      The 55-voice Sistine Chapel Choir performs as the Convention Hall during its first American tour.
6/13-15/1924   Church of the Brethren Conveniton meets in Hershey.
7/13/1924     Mooseheart's Boys' Band gives two concerts at the Convention Hall.
8/17/1924     Paul Whiteman and his orchestra performs in Convention Hall.
9/1/1924      Paul Whiteman and his orchestra performs a second time this season in the Convention Hall.
6/4/1925     Hershey Senior High School holds its commencement ceremony at the Convention Hall
7/4-5/1925    John Philip Sousa and his band perfroms two concerts at the Convention Hall.
7/25-26/1925  Creatore and his band performs two concerts during each day at the Convention Hall.
5/30/1926      Marion Talley, prima donna soprano of the Metropolitan Opera Company, gives a concert.
7/4-5/1926     John Philip Sousa and his band performs two concerts each day at the Convention Hall.
6/28-30/1926  Pennsylvania State Christian Endeavor Convention meet at Convention Hall.
5/30/1927     Will Rogers, the great cowboy humorist, performs at Convention Hall.
1931             Convention Hall is converted into the Ice Palace.  1900 seats.
2/17/1931    First hockey game in the Convention Hall/Ice Palace. Penn Athletic Club v. Villanova.
2/16/1935    Hershey Figure Skating Clug holds its 2nd Ice Carnival in the Ice Palace.
 

* Nitrogen lights were a new innovation in lighting.  More efficient than traditional incandescent lights, producing 5000 candlepower while consuming 2500 watts.  They were described as being “100% more efficient than the modern Tungsten lamps and the latest design in incandescent lights.” [NYTimes 11/15/1913] (one candlepower = 12.57 lumens).  The Convention Hall featured 16 200-watt nitrogen lights and 24 100-watt nitrogen lights and scores of more traditional tungsten electric lights.

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