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Stamford Town Halls

Stamford Government Center Dedication

A Brief History of the Town Halls of Stamford, CT
by Estelle Feinstein and Renee Kahn
on the occasion of the dedication of the Stamford Government Center.

title page of the dedication brochureMeeting house, town house, town hall, city hall, municipal building, government center--the home of the Stamford community has had many names and taken many forms. Over the last three-and-one-half centuries, controversy over the location, cost, and style of the successive town halls has erupted frequently. In the end each of the town halls has served the needs and matched the spirit of the community.

For almost a century after the founding of Stamford in 1641, political issues vied with religious issues for the attention of the citizens at town meetings. The "meeting house," a small, wooden building of about 30 feet square erected at what became the junction of Atlantic and Main Streets, was effectively the first "town hall" as well as the first church building. When the administration of political and ecclesiastical affairs was separated in 1731, however, the issue of constructing a separate structure, solely for the conduct of the public business, arose. Records of the town meetings indicate that a succession of "town houses" were erected during the eighteenth century. Each building was a modest, simple, wooden structure that served an agriculturally-oriented village of several thousand. Each was probably destroyed by fire, in an era when fire-fighting apparatus was primitive and a fire department was lacking.

In 1742, after two years of bickering, the first town house, a building 37-by-20 feet in dimensions, was constructed on Main Street, just behind the meeting house. Four decades later the town meeting authorized a two-story structure which could also be utilized for "keeping a school therein when not in actual use by said town. " Still another town house was erected in 1797 and stood for about 20 years.

At the beginnings of the second quarter of the nineteenth century, as the forces of Jacksonian Democracy, and as new forms of transportation--inter-city roads, canals, railroads--transformed the nation, Stamford town meetings were conducted in the open air or in churches. Fortunately the town, rebounding from the loss of territory to Darien and New Canaan, secured the services of Thomas B. Dixon to plan its next town hall. Dixon, who was just beginning his career as an architect-builder, designed a rectangular structure of two stories, 34-by-42 feet, topped by a gabled roof and based on a hand-hewn timber frame joined with pegs. Although we have no record, he may have included Federal or Greek Revival details.

Located on Atlantic Street not far from today's Landmark Square, the building served as the community's center till 1867. By then the structure had become clearly inadequate for a town of almost 10,000 people. The building was moved to River Street and converted into a house. (It did not escape the ultimate fate of other town houses, and, in 1986 it was destroyed by fire. A few pieces of the pegged timber frame have been salvaged for the sake of posterity.)

By 1870 Stamford and the United States had entered the roaring industrial era. One year earlier the Yale & Towne Company had begun large-scale production of the celebrated Yale lock and key. The issue of a new town hall raised a storm of discussion in the town meetings and in the press. This time the public voted for a truly impressive building of three stories--"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." The structure was an imposing red brick edifice, with granite trim, mansard roof, and proud clock tower and cupola. Standing at the hub of the community of Stamford at Atlantic and Main Streets, it was a monumental conglomeration of Second Empire and Victorian Gothic architectural elements.

On November 7, 1871, it opened its doors to an enthusiastic audience who filed into the top floor" concert room" to see and hear a lecture by John B. Gough on "Lights and Shadows of London Life." Despite the brick and masonry, however, a maverick gas jet flame set off a blaze one frigid evening in February 1904 that could not be contained. The fire fighters and the public watched helplessly as all but the shell of the structure was consumed by the flames.

The twentieth century had arrived; the United States was taking its place among the Great Powers; and Stamford was a thriving city of 19,000. It could not remain long without a government center. The next year architects Edgar Josselyn and Nathan Mellen were called on to design a town hall for the new era. In Beaux Arts style, the new building, now universally known and loved as "the Old Town Hall,” was placed diagonally on the site of the traditional center of the community. Limestone-faced and topped with a massive clock tower, the two-and-a-half story structure provided space for the mayor, a growing list of city officials and a mountain of records. At one point its basement even served as the local jailhouse.

The nation and the city after World War II, however, were far more complex than they had been at the beginnings of the century. The Beaux Arts building could not meet the increasing demands for municipal services and offices. The first attempt at a solution was the purchase of the five-story HELCO office building at the lower end of Atlantic Street. The offices of the Mayor and board of representatives and other boards were moved into the new "City Hall" or "Municipal Office Building," constructed originally in 1927. The Town Clerk, the Judge of Probate and the Registrars of Voters remained in the "Old Town Hall," while other officials were located in other buildings on and off Atlantic Street.

Such a dispersal of government ill-suited a modern city of over 100,000 population. Post-war Stamford was transformed by the process of urban renewal and by the arrival of a host of corporate headquarters. In 1986 the hydra-headed problem was solved at one stroke by the purchase of the sleek aluminum, glass, and steel office building, constructed but not tenanted by GTE, on the corner of Tresser and Washington Boulevards.

Designed by the firm of Hellmuth, Obata and Kassabaum, under senior architect Jerry A. Davis, the 250,000-square-foot, ten-story, aquamarine and white edifice provides an elegant home for Stamford for decades to come. Named the Stamford Government Center, the newest town hall of Stamford is a genuine match for the complex needs and large spirit of its people.

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