From church to fort, back to church and then to theater: through war, fire and vicissitudes, the building now known as the Fort Salem Theater has endured for nearly two and a half centuries.
In 1761 Joshua Conkey and James Turner journeyed from their home in Massachusetts and discovered a lush valley fed by a brook the Indians called Osoma ("stream of shining pebbles"), after the stones glistening beneath the clear waters.
The Massachusetts men saw a good future here, and the next year brought their families back to live. They built homes and a school, and organized the First Presbyterian Church, the first to be incorporated in the county. There were fifty-two members in the congregation.
In 1774 a proper edifice was begun, but before it was completed, or a pastor secured even to preach in it, war stormed through the valley in the person of General Burgoyne, the fierce Le Loup and his Indian raiders. Patriot forces occupied what there was of the new church building and built a stockade and barracks for the troops. Known variously as the White Creek Fort, Fort William, and Fort Salem, it was burned in the late summer of 1777, reportedly by a "domestic" enemy, a Tory.
Thus, the New Englanders' first church was destroyed before it ever came to fruition. This was the first of a series of destructive fires which might have discouraged a less stalwart group.
Their second edifice was quite magnificent. Running lengthwise to the street, there were entrances on three sides, galleries all around, forty-six boxed-in wooden pews, and a square steeple large enough to hold the session room. This building burned to the ground sometime between 1822 and 1836, when a new structure was completed.
In 1840, the congregation gathered in dismay once more to see their church in flames. This time all the early records were lost, but the walls were left standing. Undaunted, the Presbyterians rebuilt their church one more time, "with improvements." This is the building you see today. Some charred timbers in the basement are testament to the building’s history.
In 1882 a chapel was added. The institution thrived, growing to a total of 436 members. In the late 1950's, however, changing times and a dwindling congregation forced a merger with the Scotch Presbyterians down the street. For a time sessions were held jointly, alternating locations. In 1965, the congregation left the valiant old structure for good.
For a brief time its rooms echoed with the noises of children from the nearby school while being used as extra classroom space, but for the most part it stood nearly empty and waiting. In 1972 it was purchased by Judge William Drohan of New York City, a summer resident of Salem and part-time thespian of some note, who saw in the structure a myriad of unexplored possibilities. He replaced the altar with a stage, made other necessary changes, and produced the first shows at the Fort Salem Theater.
The chapel, once home to dressing rooms and a scene shop, has become an elegant cabaret, with state-of-the-art lighting and sound. The Mainstage, like the cabaret designed by David Pedemonti, has been totally renovated, with a proscenium arch, new stage, and new appointments, beautifully executed by Jewett Restorations of Saratoga Springs.
While changes have had to be made to intensify the dramatic experience for theater aficionados, efforts are always made to preserve the historic nature of the building. Some of the original wooden pews remain on premises, but the uncomfortable seats from the nineteenth century have been replaced with 199 seats donated from and by Broadway’s Helen Hayes Theater.
Fort Salem Theater, still known by villagers as the Brick Church, faces out toward a broad, tree lined street in Salem's National Historic District. The theater presides in majesty over its neighbors, which include many gracious homes dating from the early 1800's, with its tall steeple and towering white columns supporting a Greek Revival portico over white marble steps.