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tamford in the Gilded age book cover Estelle Feinstein, c. 1973

Stamford in the Gilded Age
The Political Life of a Connecticut Town 1868-1893
by Estelle F. Feinstein
© Stamford Historical Society, 1973

a transcription work in progress

The Townhall Issue in the 19th Century
pp. 97–104

The Town Hall Issue

In the strained period following the Civil War, the notion of constructing an impressive Town Hall, a notion launched and managed by James Olmstead, appealed symbolically as well as practically to a wide spectrum of the community. Olmstead, the Democratic leader who dated his role from his arrival in Stamford as a young lawyer in 1851, was adept at promoting demands that raised no divisive ideological issue and that strengthened his image as a selfless, valiant protector of the interest of the common man and of the community. Resistance arose largely from rural spokesmen who objected to increased taxes without corresponding concrete benefits and from downtown realtors and merchants who feared the competition from the retail stores to be located in the building. Popular interest in and appreciation of the multiple uses, symbolic, social, and commercial as well as political, that the structure could serve provided the necessary consensual base of support. Perhaps only in this period, when the town was gradually increasing in size and in heterogeneity but still remained a walking city, could the Town Hall have been seen by the majority as functional in such a variety of ways. Certainly the proposal stirred the public imagination sufficiently to overcome the reluctance toward public spending on which opponents of innovation usually counted.

The city of “imageability” or the “city perceived by its inhabitants” is the city of highly visible boundaries, districts, nodes, and landmarks. Stamford had been without a formal Town Hall, the most visible landmark of a community, since 1797 when a structure, erected for the purpose, had been abandoned as too small. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, town meetings had been held in churches and taverns. A modest, two-story, wooden building, “poor, shabby, and squalid,” situated in Atlantic Square, had been used by officials but was judged hopelessly inadequate by the war period. It was sold in 1867 and removed for use as a private home. As early as 1861, town meetings had taken place in Seely’s Hall, fifty-eight feet by one-hundred-and-five feet in dimension, and offices and documents had been located wherever their occupants or owners happened to work.

With the end of fratricidal hostilities, the town, provoked by Olmstead, petitioned the General Assembly for permission to issue $100,000 in bonds to construct a Town House to satisfy “local pride, convenience, and future prosperity.” The petition, like most local requests, was quickly granted, but it took a total of nine Town Meetings between 1868 and 1872, to resolve all the problems, of site, plan, construction, bonding, and leasing of space, raised by the special statute.

Following approval of the bonding by the Connecticut General Assembly, the Annual Meeting of 1868 appointed a Committee of five to report on possible locations, architectural plans, and costs of a Town Hall. The Committee included Charles H. Nichols, a carpenter and ex-Captain, James H. Hoyt, Superintendent of the New Haven railroad, which had recently completed a new depot in Stamford, Joseph B. Hoyt, a wealthy businessman and part owner of the canal property, W.R. Ritch, the Town Treasurer, and E.A. Quintard, a prosperous owner of downtown real estate. The Special Meeting of December 26, 1868 adopted the recommended site, the publicly-owned and central triangle of land, long considered the Town Square, between Bank, Atlantic, and Main Streets. It resolved also to purchase two pieces within the triangle acreage, the lease of the Universalist Church for $6,000 and adjoining private property for $8,500, and to issue the $100,000 in bonds. However, the voters rejected the Committee plan for the actual building, designed by one, Upjohn, largely because the cost was estimated at an excessive $99,500.

Two shoe manufacturers from the northern Long Ridge area, Charles Lounsbury and Seth Cook, made a determined attempt the next month to halt the movement. They issued a call for another meeting, a perfectly legal and constantly available ploy used to reverse policies. The partners petitioned for a session to vote directly on “whether the Town will or will not build a new Town Hall at this time.” The Meeting rejected the opportunity to delay or reverse the agreed-upon course. To appease the farmers and rural shopowners, the Advocate, a fortnight later, presented careful, statistical analysis of the town assessment districts and showed that four-fifths of the local property taxes were paid by those in the central and southern sections. The editor pleaded that “our country friends should be liberal with us [on the Town Hall] when we foot the bills for roads and schools for them.” A private correspondent tried to allay northern criticism by making the optimistic forecast that half the total cost of the Hall would be paid for in twenty years by the income from the appreciating rents of the stores to be located on the first floor.

Objections rose on other grounds as well. One writer “south of the sectional line,” protested that the size of the deal was beyond the town's ability to pay, that the town would loose money by “store letting and speculating schemes,” that the current price of brick was at a high and would fall, and that the town required a water supply for extinguishing fires far more desperately than it needed a Town Hall.

Such charges of sectional bias, unnecessary expense, and risk, out-of-joint times, and more exigent alternative needs, were effective in halting improvements twenty years later. But the community of the early seventies held firm to its intent to build a Town Hall which would satisfy practical uses and provide a sense of civic identity. At least Yankee spokesmen did. From the approximately one-quarter of the population of almost 10,000 that was Irish-born, no representative was yet involved enough or confident enough on local issues to take a stand.

Planning continued. The Universalist Church, the blacksmith shop, the saloon, and the shoe store on the proposal site were duly vacated and their owners, recompensed. One year after the Cook-Lounsbury effort, at a Meeting called for January 29, 1870 to make the definitive choice among plans, a “large and excited” crowd gathered despite a stormy outdoor atmosphere. The Committee presented but did not endorse the ideas of E. A. Fuertes, a resident civil engineer who had designed projects for the federal government in South America, the plans of A.C. Arnold, a local carpenter, and the proposals of Van Orden and Young, architects from New York City. Olmstead made motions to authorize construction of a three-story building tailored to Stamford's particular political, judicial, and commercial needs. According to the Advocate report, Captain Philips suggested that the lawyers and court room be placed on the top floor to put “the lawyers as near heaven as possible,” but the notion and the goal were both held impractical. James H. Hoyt, Stamford Superintendent of the New Haven Railroad, proposed a two-story building but his amendment was defeated “nearly unanimously.” In the end, the three resolutions and oratory of Olmstead, aided by speeches from such other local notables as builder N .E. Adams, landowner George A. Hoyt, storekeeper P.S. Jacobs, and attorney Thomas G. Ritch, carried “almost unanimously.” At the height of the debate, the excitement made it “next to impossible to follow or hear” the arguments, and one, Hiram Raymond, “nearly boiled over” to declare himself in support once he understood that the enterprise would be financially self-sustaining.

The final decision of the January 1870 Meeting called for “a three-story building of brick or stone, with such trimming as the building committee may adopt… the ground floor for stores or business purposes for the town, the second story for a Court Room, offices and storage… and the third story for a Town Hall.” A bipartisan Building Committee of seven, nominated by a committee of five, was charged by the meeting with execution and completion of the order. Besides the First Selectman E.E. Scofield and Borough Warden George Lownds, the Committee included four wealthy businessmen, J.H. Hoyt, W.R. Ritch, A.J. Bell, and J.D. Ferguson, and Captain Nichols. The members, all Yankees, explicitly declared that they were not “in any way interested in the contract for said Town Hall.”

The full Committee of seven met only two days after its formation to implement the voted policy. However, another doughty adversary now appeared on the scene in the person of Albert Seely, the owner of Seely's Hall, which had heretofore been hired for all large public functions. A man who had had to support his mother and five siblings when only sixteen years of age, a man who had erected the first brick buildings in Stamford, and a man who had driven horse and sleigh across the frozen Sound to Long Island and back in the winter of January 1840, he was not easily daunted. He unabashedly fought back to protect his investment. His lawyer won from Judge Butler of the Superior Court an injunction to stop construction of the Town Hall on the ground that the General Assembly of Connecticut had authorized bonds “solely for the use of a Town House” and not for any plans to include stores. The town administration, contrary to its usual style, used its countervailing resources with equal vigor. The Selectmen immediately appealed to the General Assembly to alter the portion of the special statute pertaining to the uses of the proposed bonds. The state legislature cooperated quickly and without a dissenting vote, and Judge Butler promptly dissolved the injunction.

Irritated and angry but anonymous letter-writers, who signed their outbursts with such titles as “a Native” and “Citizen,” continued to criticize the resolution. They pointed to the high cost of the enterprise, the problem of marketing bonds, the crowded and expensive central location, the troubling question of putting the town into the business of leasing and the politicians into the problem of store management, and the priority of other community needs, such as provision for a permanent water supply, a drainage system, and paved streets. Some implied that the Selectmen had acted illegally in applying hastily to the General Assembly and in hiring counsel, to deal with a subsequent court appeal by Seely, without specific authorization by a town meeting. Critics hinted at attempts at fraud and corruption on the part of architects, contractors, and businessmen. One outraged correspondent called the whole scheme a tremendous injustice to all storekeepers, a subterfuge to profit a few insiders and property holders, and a terrible waste of money for all taxpayers who did not want “a giant gin-mill, with its back to the Main Street and its facade on an obscure alley.” The critics were articulate but constituted only a frustrated minority. The authorities persevered. Bids were called and let: the masonry contract, to Philip Brown, a local resident; the carpentry contract, to the New York City firm of George W. Dechune. A cupola and tower, complete with bell, crowned the frame and interior work progressed smoothly during 1870-71. In August a Town Meeting authorized the renting of the shops on the first floor at competitive auction. Initially the Meeting had reserved the corner store for the post office, but Postmaster Theodore Daskam, a Republican bulwark who had been appointed by Lincoln in 1861, stubbornly retained the facility on his own commercial premises until his death in 1877. Two meat markets, an undertaker's establishment, and a grocery were welcomed, but a liquor outlet was expressly forbidden, although in earlier, more homogeneous and easy-going times town halls had been ordinaries and Town Clerk Edwin Scofield, Jr. had been the Town Liquor Agent as well. After a final application of paint and last-minute carpentry, the Town Hall publicly opened its doors on the evening of November 7, 1871 with a lecture by John B. Gough on “Lights and Shadows of London Life.”

A major fault appeared immediately. A serious acoustical problem plagued the audience hall on the third story. The remedy, construction of a gallery, was finally achieved in 1876 under the direction of a Special Committee composed of the builder A.J. Bell and the rival political leaders Fessenden and Olmstead.

With trade conducted on the ground floor, with official and judicial business transacted on the second floor, and with town meetings and party caucuses and entertainments, ranging from fairs and balls to concerts and lectures, gracing the top level, the Town Hall functioned as the home of the community. In 1892, after years of discussion, a clock, with four dials, was placed in the tower as part of the common effort in behalf of the 250th anniversary of the founding of Stamford.

Criticism and complaint did not disappear, however, with the fait accompli. A stream of plumbing, fire-proofing, ventilating, sanitary, and acoustic repairs proved chronic and costly, and income from the commercial operations consistently fell below expectations. A private offer to rent the structure in 1892 was endorsed by Olmstead himself but rejected by the town meeting. The next year, after the onset of the depression, all three Selectmen and the Town Treasurer pressed for the sale of the total structure, now feared to be unsafe and known to be unprofitable. No official action followed, perhaps because the rumored offer of $150,000 for the edifice never materialized, perhaps because a fire in the upper story damaged the building at this juncture, perhaps because civic sentiment flared up anew.

The postbellum generation, which had underwritten the $100,000 in bonds and subsequent costs, had confidently expected that the Hall would last at least half-a-century. One frigid evening in February 1904, a maverick gas jet flame set off a blaze which the inadequate fire-fighting apparatus of the city could not control. Within two hours only the shell of the structure remained. A replacement was eventually erected, but no other official building ever served the range of functions, social and commercial as well as political and official, provided by the Town Hall of 1871-1904. A contemporary editor of the Advocate, Robert Whitaker, mourned the departed monument and its many roles in twelve verses, including the following:

The aesthetic folk might sneer,
Old Town Hall;
But to thousands you were dear,
Old Town Hall.

For a “rally” or a ball,
For 'most anything at all,
You were ever at our call,
Old Town Hall!

The achievement of the Town Hall in the immediate postbellum period was the product of an urge for identity and unity. Its principal proponent, James Olmstead, spoke solely as a community leader and never referred to or called on his position in the Democratic caucus. The demand elicited the active support of the small-town Yankee builders and lawyers, who took the floor and did the work on the Special Committees of the town meetings, and offended only a minority of distant rural residents and downtown property-owners with conflicting economic interest. The symbolic appeal of a Town Hall overcame the resistance to spending and change and prevented the manipulation of the town meeting process to block decisions. But the appeal was necessarily unique and not transferable to later demands for common improvements.

Stamford Town Halls
Stamford in the Gilded Age

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