In 1929 'a great, glaring, brick town hall' was proposed to replace the original

Notes: In 1929, it appeared that few York residents favored the construction of a new town hall made of brick, an anathema for many, meaning the destruction of the familiar and cherished wooden town hall. James Kences tells the hidden story of how a well-known Maine architectural firm, the Stevens, had recommended a new brick building to replace the old one - reasons unknown – and which convinced some influential residents to throw in their support. It looked to be a fait accompli, but was suddenly dropped when the Great Depression struck, ending all talk of replacement or, even renovation of the old town hall. Saved by a stroke of misfortune.

By James Kences

“To put a modern town hall on the site of the old one, and among the fine old colonial houses and buildings, would be a misfortune to York. My friends it would be vandalism! Let us not do it. ..." The strong words are from a letter written by Helen Lathrop, a "summer sojourner,” that was read aloud at a special town meeting, held in the mid-afternoon of Saturday June 29, 1929.

The month of June had opened with the brief, unexpected visit of the international celebrity Charles Lindbergh to York Harbor. What had brought the famed aviator to town was the need for gasoline to power his motorized yacht, as he sailed with his new wife the former Anne Morrow for the Canadian Maritimes. "The York people were simply great," Anne wrote of the episode, "laughing at the reporters and giving C. every attention. ... They all called Charles 'Skipper’!"

Those in the crowd who witnessed Lindbergh’s visit on the afternoon of the 8th, were likely familiar with the ongoing debate over the town hall's future because the issue had been on the minds of many in the town for over a year. It was in fact at the annual town meeting, March 12, 1928, the first mention was made in the record. A five-member committee formed from the selectmen and two other individuals was assigned the task of preparing a plan for a town hall that was to be presented at the next year's town meeting.

The residents of the town were told they confronted two options - either new construction or remodeling of the existing building, and they were also to decide upon the location for the future town hall if the current site was perceived to be less than ideal. The architectural firm that was consulted was headed by John Calvin Stevens of Portland, widely recognized in Maine for the designs of numerous municipal buildings and the cottages of wealthy patrons. Stevens favored the style of the Colonial Revival.

Stevens, working with his son, John Howard Stevens, first, conducted a careful assessment, and then, drafted a plan that was submitted to the committee for consideration. "They have designed a brick building, slate roof, with offices on both floors," it was announced at the March 1929 Annual Meeting, which was to include an auditorium furnished with balconies, with close to four-hundred-person capacity.

As recently as 1926, only three years earlier, and so possibly a reliable guide as to the intended appearance of this projected building, the Stevens firm had designed the York Institute building in Saco, and the Public Library in South Paris, Maine. Both of these projects were also of brick. A decade earlier, in 1916, the Stevens were responsible for the second Marshall House on Stage Neck here in York, again fashioned from brick, after the destruction by fire of the former wooden hotel.

"There is bound to be more yearly expense for upkeep in a wooden building than in a brick one," was the explanation the architects provided for their choice of building material. Though not mentioned, protection from fire was certainly important as well. Some of the features encountered in the exterior of the York Institute conform to the character of the Southern Colonies, and as one historian has observed, "the Stevens firm acknowledged a national rather than New England standard for the popular image of colonial architecture."

The Stevens had prepared plans for possible efforts at remodeling, but expressed little optimism in this as an effective strategy. The so-called Plan A was based upon a scheme with an addition built into the rear to house the offices; Plan B, would require building in offices into the front part, and an auditorium built into the back, in the second story a hall able to seat over 400.

"Let us repeat, that as your professional advisors, we believe it would be a mistake to attempt to utilize the present structure." Among the reasons they gave for this opinion was the problems created by the renovations 50 years earlier. "If the building ever possessed any good architectural features, they were entirely lost in the changes made in 1873." Unfortunately, they did not elaborate in detail on the damage this had caused.

They had to acknowledge there was considerable opposition to the plan, and that many wanted the old building retained. "From a sentimental point of view," the Stevens' wrote, the prevailing attitude was to be "commended, and if the structure had any architectural merit we would be strongly in favor of such action."

How and why did the movement for a new town hall suddenly become such an important issue? There is nothing in the record prior to 1928 to indicate the situation was as serious as depicted. Typically, the appropriations approved by the voters were for minor improvements amounting to a few hundred dollars, while the new building was estimated to cost $55,000 dollars. Where was the money to come from?

In the end, fate intervened, because within four months of the June 29 meeting, the stock market crashed, a prelude to the Great Depression that was to dominate the decade of the 1930s. Still, the proponents of a new town hall persevered, and in 1931, found another architect, John Mead Howells, the son of author William Dean Howells, as a consultant. Not surprisingly, he expressed the same misgivings as his predecessors. But it no longer really mattered, because the town could not afford anything as ambitious as what had been envisioned in the Twilight of the Roaring Twenties.

A final statement: "In view of the present bonded obligations of the town, it would be unwise at this time for the voters to increase the burden. . ." And so, the venerable town hall had survived this period of threat to its very existence, in defiance of its critics, and is still with us today.

York historian James Kences writes "York in American History," a monthly column for The York Weekly.
York historian James Kences writes "York in American History," a monthly column for The York Weekly.

York historian James Kences writes "York in American History," a monthly column that appears in The York Weekly.

This article originally appeared on Portsmouth Herald: A brick structure was proposed to replace York, Maine town hall in 1929