Small’s Opera House and Livery

Small’s Opera House and Livery on South Second Avenue and East Alder Street.

Editor’s note: This is the second of two parts on Freeman Portman Allen.

The 1882 California Architect publication lists just three architects in all of Washington Territory and F. P. Allen is one of them. The same publication describes a two-story building on Walla Walla’s Main Street financed by Kennedy, Howard and Barrett, and designed by F. P Allen. A fire the last day of 1881 destroyed several Main Street wooden buildings, including the livery stable of D.W. Small.

F. P. Allen’s Barrett Building replaced the burned buildings with a substantial and elegant brick structure. J. S. Barrett was a shoe store owner and had his shop in the commodious new building; the rest of it housed a variety of businesses and offices. William Stine’s bookstore in the Barrett Building was the location of the Post Office and Mr. Stine was the postmaster. The Barrett Building spans the north side of East Main between and South First Avenue and South Second Avenue and has been beautifully restored and houses shops, tasting rooms and restaurants.

In 1884 F. P. Allen and David Small decided to join forces and build the impressive Small’s Livery and Opera House on the corner of East Alder Street and Second, where the Denny Building stands today. Dave Small, whose house was designed by F. P. Allen chose him and his partner Mr. Whittemore to design a combination livery and opera house. The cost was $5,000 and it could seat 1500 people upstairs. The first floor’s stables could accommodate 60 horses. Besides boarding horses, Mr. Small provided a local hack service which operated from his livery. Folks of the times were accustomed to horses and whatever smells wafted upstairs to the performance space were not a deterrent.

In December of 1884 a near disaster occurred at Small’s Opera House. A giant Christmas tree at the opera house was installed as a treat for all the Sunday school children of Walla Walla. The committee in charge decorated the tree with fruit, candy, nuts and toys, and placed presents under the tree. At 6:00 p.m. the work was finished and the committee members went home for dinner. The unveiling of the tree was scheduled for an hour later and hundreds of residents were expected. A few young people who could not wait for the official event gathered around the tree and the caretaker, William Glasgow, went outside to gather wood. Suddenly the roof collapsed and tons of debris fell into the auditorium. Miraculously the knot of young people around the tree was spared but Mr. Glasgow was killed by falling timbers and bricks.

A newspaper article just two days before the roof collapse describes Mr. Allen examining the roof of his opera house due to concern about the weight of a heavy snowfall. He measured the depth of the snow at 22 inches and calculated the stress that would put on the trusses. He then recommended that the snow be removed for safety’s sake. Mr. Small immediately employed a “force of men” to shovel snow from the roof. Why then did the roof collapse? Surely the possibility of faulty construction must have been suggested. The opera house was damaged, but it appears that F. P. Allen’s reputation was not. The roof was repaired and the opera house continued to be the place to go for entertainment. One could see everything from Gilbert and Sullivan to vaudeville. Space could be rented for private parties.

In 1884 Mr. Allen was commissioned to build a grand home for Harrison Hungate on the northeast corner of North Second Avenue and East Sumach Street. The plans for this home are at Whitman College Archives and are signed by the architect. After designing the Hungate home, F. P. Allen’s career appears to have slowed down. The Allens’ daughter Rowena had married and moved to Tacoma. Her father designed a house for her there in 1892. F. P. Allen was in Tacoma when he died in 1902 and he is buried there.

Henry Osterman, who immigrated to Walla Walla in 1889, was receiving most of Walla Walla’s design commissions by the early 1890s. In 1905, Small’s Opera House was deemed unsafe by Osterman, who was part of a commission assigned to evaluate the building by the City Council. After Small’s Opera House was razed Osterman built the Denny Building in its place on Alder and Second. It was Henry Osterman who designed the courthouse that replaced Allen’s.

The Blalock and Hungate mansions have been torn down. Small’s Opera House is gone and F. P. Allen’s courthouse has been replaced. The home Mr. Allen designed for D. W. Small has been altered dramatically and the Lacy-Whitman Building is in a sad state. Happily, two of the most distinctive buildings in town, Kirkman House and the Barrett Building, still stand, have been restored, and remind us of our productive early architect, F. P. Allen.

Susan Monahan volunteers giving tours and doing research at Kirkman House Museum and co-coordinates the volunteer Living History Program at Fort Walla Walla Museum. Contact her at This column focuses on the rich history about people, places and events in the Walla Walla Valley.

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