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Stamford Town Halls

It Happened Here: Our Old Townhall Was New Once

By Marie Updegraff

June 10, 1967
Stamford Advocate

Soon after the Civil War, Stamford decided to build a new town hall.

The three-story civic headquarters In the center of Atlantic Square was not really very old, but it was no longer big enough to hold all the city's business. So in 1857, the building was sold and moved to River St.

You can see it there today next to a dry cleaners, its first-floor windows boarded up, awaiting demolition by Urban Redevelopment. In recent years this yellow frame building with brown trim and a porch across the front has been a rooming house.

The URC has proposed to the Stamford Housing Authority that low-income housing be built on the River St. property, and the Housing Authority hopes to earmark it for senior citizens.

Early in 1869, the main topic of discussion at a series of town meetings was the new hall. Most people wanted a monumental structure that would reflect Stamford's growing wealth and importance. In the face of the usual opposition that crops up in every civic building project--including, In this case, an injunction obtained in Superior Court just before the work began--the majority eventually won.

For $6.000, Stanford acquired the lease of the Universalist Church building, which stood on city property at the corner Of Atlantic and Main Sts., and for $8.500, bought adjoining property owned by William J. Lockwood. Construction of the five-story building started in the fall of 1870.

It was an elephantine brick edifice with a mansard roof and a four-sided bulbous bell tower that rose two stories above the rest of the building at the northeast end. The arched windows and most of the other architectural details were outlined in light-colored brick, giving the impression of a giant, busily decorated birthday cake.

Stores and offices on the first and second floors were rented by auction to various business firms. The ground floor also housed the post office.

But by Nov. 7, 1871, when the first lecture was scheduled in the auditorium on the third floor, the building was still unfinished. The temperance orator, John B. Gough, who was to speak on "Lights and Shadows of London," couldn't use Seely's Hall because it was booked for something else.

So there was a frantic rush to get at least the auditorium in shape. The Saturday prior to the lecture, parts of the iron stoves were still In the manufacturer's furnace. The gaslight fixtures arrived only the day before.

Nevertheless, the program went on as planned before an audience of 1,218, the largest ever assembled indoors In Stamford. It was discovered that the auditorium had poor acoustics, and in 1876 the situation was improved by adding a gallery.

A Darien woman who prefers not to be identified remembers seeing "Little Lord Fauntleroy" in this auditorium. "When the grandfather in the play pounded the table with his fist, I was so frightened I started to cry," she recalled. "I couldn't stop crying, and my family had to take me home."

The massive birthday cake building served Stamford for 33 years, and then on the night of Feb. 4. 1904, it was destroyed in a spectacular fire.

Fire broke out about 7 p.m. No one knew exactly how it started, although there was speculation that a flame from a bracket gaslight In the drafty second-floor foyer near the ticket office may have blown against the woodwork, like a match licking kindling.

Fortunately, only a few persons were above the ground floor when the fire started. Three officers of the Leeds Council, Order of United American Mechanics, were busy in their lodge room up under the roof at the south end of the building.

A roaring inferno blocked the stairs, and they managed to escape through a scuttle in the ceiling and walk across the roof to another scuttle at the north end. Luckily it wasn't locked, and they climbed down through the scenery on the stage of the auditorium and got out of the building.

Although the fire started directly over the post office, postal employees carried out all the first class mail. The rest of the mail burned. Public officials were able to salvage considerable quantities of documents from the vaults.

Firemen could not get an effective stream of water into the building for half an hour because the bitter cold weather had frozen the fire hydrants. By the time they got a second stream going, the whole structure was ablaze.

Flames leaped into the sky and sparks flew in all directions. With no hope of saving town hall, the firemen concentrated on keeping the fire from spreading.

A wooden building to the rear was partially destroyed. Sparks caught in the tower of the wooden Congregational Church across Bank St., and for a time that building seemed doomed. Using their new extension ladder for the third time, the firemen snuffed out the steeple flames. The plate glass window in the C.O. Miller building, then located across the Square, cracked in the heat.

At 8 p.m. the bell in the tower struck the hour and then broke from its moorings and plummeted to the basement. It had sounded the death knell of town hall.

An hour later, only the four brick walls were standing, and by midnight the fire had consumed its way to the basement, where It was still roaring.

Early the next morning. Editor Robert Whittaker put out an extra edition of the Advocate. He mourned the loss in a 12-stanza poem, titled Good-bye, Old Town Hall. Here are two of the stanzas:

The aesthetic folk might sneer,
Old Town Hall;
But to thousands you were dear,
Old Town Hall.
Even if we must agree
That from 'graft' you were not free,
Yet we mourn Fate's sad decree,
Old Town Hall.

How we miss your cheerful bell,
Old Town Hall!
Ah! It struck its own death knell,
Old Town Hall!
Yes, its finish was sublime, As it tolled its final chime -
Where shall now we look for time,
Old Town Hall!

The old town hall was replaced by a new one, a Beaux Arts structure known today as the Old Town Hall. It stands on the same site.

Photo Selection of the Month: Summer 2001
The Old Town Hall, 1870-1904
The New Old Town Hall, Built in 1905
Stamford Town Halls
Stamford Government