Building Village Hall

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It was the aim of the architect to design a building typical of the place, for a community of country-type homes, and area with few places of business, hence we chose a quite unpretentious structure, many gabled and picturesque, with a tower and a clock, as old villages were wont to have, with a general air of dignified simplicity, which will be a rest for the eye. It would be accepted thereafter by the village as the center of their political world.

South Orange Bulletin, 1984[1]


South Orange was first founded as an agricultural community, but by the early nineteenth century many farmers had yielded to the pressure for more homes as wealthy businessmen from New York City began to settle there. It was then that the village began to change from an agrarian to a suburban community.[2] Stage coaches operating on Columbia Turnpike (later called South Orange Avenue) between Newark and Morristown first served the transportation needs of the community. They were superseded by the streetcar and most important by the introduction of the railroad, which was to shape the future development of South Orange. The first line was the Morris and Essex, established in 1837 which ran between Newark and "the summit of the short hills."[3] It was replaced by the Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western (D.L. and W.) which ran to Hoboken where ferry connections were made across the Hudson River to New York. By 1869 there were fifteen trains a day each way to New York.[4] A publication put out that year by the railroad described South Orange:

... a rural retreat for the businessman of New York and Newark and is the product mainly of the past twenty years. It has all the elegance that results from handsome private structures and their surroundings. Evidences of wealth and good taste are numerous, but the stores are few and there is none of the stir and bustle of manufacturing and commercial towns. Embracing as it does, hill, valley, and mountain, the opportunity for artistic embellishment is endless and has been taken advantage of. Nature has been prodigal of her gifts, and money has done much to improve nature.[5]

The village had also been known for a resport first named "The Orange Springs Water Cure," later "The Orange Springs Mansion" and finally, prior to 1830, a one-hundred and fifty guest hotel called "The Mountain House."[6] Later developments included the founding of the Orange Lawn Tennis Club and of Seton Hall University in 1860.[7]

The proximity of the Village to New York City (16 miles) and the recent advances in transportation and the recent advances in transportation (D.L. and W.) in the mid-nineteenth century assured its growth as a suburban community.[8] Its developers must have been influenced by Llewellyn Park, and the first planned residential community in the United States, located in nearby West Orange. The "development in the Orange Mountains" was created by A. J. Downing, the famous landscape gardener, in 1853. The homes were designed in the Gothic style from 1853 to 1869 by A. J. Davis. The Park and the kind of Gothic homes in it have been called "symptomatic of the profound changes being worked by increasing wealth, industrialization, and urbanization in mid-nineteenth century American life." The developer called the five-hundred acre Park "only twelve miles from Fifth Avenue" and easily accessible by the newly laid railroad across the Jersey marshes "... a retreat for a man to exercise his own rights and privileges... man could escape the pressures and tensions of city life." Llewellyn Park was the first "romantic suburb" in America and was set a "Sociological and architectural pattern for hundreds to follow in the century to come."[9]

South Orange, a couple of stops up the line, also wanted peace and serenity away from the expanding urbanization. Pressure was exerted from the City of Orange as well as the larger centers of Newark and New York. To avoid being incorporated into a larger jurisdiction, the original charter incorporating the Village of South Orange was ratified at a special election on May 4, 1869. The population was still less than 1,200 residents.[10] The residents selected this limited form of government, which uses the system of the town meeting, board of trustees, and a president who votes only to break a tie. To them, "Democracy has not yet found out how to govern a great city satisfactorily, direct responsibility upon the ordinary citizen for his immediate locality becomes lost."[11] This persistent attitude of dislike of big city government was t shape the type of town hall to be erected many years later.

[Picture of Town Hall]

Building a town hall was first considered early in 1892 at a town meeting.[12] Different sites were considered. By February 1894 a site on Prospect Street had been decided upon.[13] Public opinion was against it, and the site was finally abandoned by the Trustees by the end of March.[14] During this time a plan was completed by the New York firm of Rossiter and Wright. Mr. Wright was a resident of South Orange.[15] Other sites were considered, but finally the site on the corner of South Orange Avenue and Scotland Road was selected. It was said to "Show off to the greatest advantage," and it would be convenient for the "transaction of public business."[16] "It would loom up in grand style commanding a magnificent view from the mountain and other approaches to the village."[17] in June the lot was purchased for $11,000.[16]

[Bronze Plaque]

On July 23, 1894 the final plans and specifications for the new Village Hall were accepted. Different plans had been prepared for almost every site previously considered.[21] The architect's description of the proposed building appeared in the October 6 issue of the South Orange Bulletin. He described it as "unique in design" based on a study of half-timbered work of England and Germany during the Elizabethan period. The German style was closely followed in the tower which would rise "to a height of fifty feet." The foundation would be stone, the first storey walls of brick, with pressed brick corners. The upper half would be half-timber work with portland cement between the panels. Molten brick would be used which, "from its close contact with the fire in the kiln... has acquired a flinty nature that renders it impervious to moisture and at the same time produces a pleasing contrast to the quoins of red brick."[22]

"The upper storey would be finished in plaster of a reddish orange tint and the woodwork in the gables of a tower stained a dark brown. The general effect throughout the building was to be that of orange and black. The tower would remain in plain plaster work... capped with the clock tower which would project beyond the walls, the effect produced in half-timber work. The dome would be of natural copper, surmounted by a belfry roofed, in turn, with copper, with a flag staff at the very top. In the belfry would be placed a thousand-pound bell and in the clock tower a clock of one of the best makes. The dials and hands would be of black slate and the flashing and finishing throughout, of copper."[23]

"It was proposed to have in bronze letters the words 'Village Hall' over the central arch. The round arch doorway in the tower would be the private entrance for the trustees to their quarters on the second floor, and also to the large meeting hall. The arch would be of terra cotta, and on the corbels supporting it the words 'Village Hall, Trustees' Entrance' and '1984' would be worked into the ornamentation. The three dormers were to open into the hall on the second storey and afford its principal light. The heating throughout the building would be steam in in the basement provisions would be made for coal storage and a room for the water department to test their meters and store them. Facing Scotland Road, under the three arches, the main staircase to the hall would be reached and the large room provided for the street and water departments. The room next to the tower was for the clerk and treasurer. A vault 8' x 15' with hollow fireproof walls, solid brick dome, and regulation safe door and combination locks would be provided for the custody of the Village documents. Further provisions for the storage of less important papers were to be made in the tower, with arrangements made in the tower also for the drying of the hose of the Fire Department."[24]

"The easterly side of the building (was to) be given up to the Fire Department. The main entrance on South Orange Avenue (would) be the hook and ladder and truck room to the rear of which were two large rooms divided by flexifold door, so that they (might) be thrown into one room. Each room (would) have a private entrance from the side, and the main staircase hall (would) also have a private side entrance. The firemen intended putting in a shower bath and tub at their own expense."[25]

"The main hall in the second storey (would) be 35' x 56' and have a seating capacity of from 300 to 500. The roof would be of open timber work, the trusses being of yellow pine and the wainscoting of cypress. The woodwork would be mainly cypress. The platform would serve as a meeting room for the trustees. It could also be utilized as a stage. On either side of the platform would be a room, one for the president and the other for a committee room."[26]

[View of tower today]

These plans were modified from those prepared in January 1894 by Rossiter and Wright for the Prospect Street site. The exterior design was quite similar except that the quarters for the Fire Department and the tower was located differently. The design was published in the January 20 issue of the American Architect and Building News.[27] The revised plan was much more successful. By siting the building on a corner the architect was able to provide a separation of the pedestrian entrance and the Fire Department. The combination of three arches with three elaborate dormers above them seems more pleasing than four arches with two more simple ones. The small tower on the Prospect Street plan also distracted form the main one which did not include a clock, an integral part of the present building. The South Orange Avenue site does show the building off to its best advantage, as its proponents suggested it would.

The major construction work cost $11,511.[28] Added costs included the bell ($300), a bronze plate for inscription and letters ($100), and a clock for the tower ($285).[29]

The South Orange Bulletin said at the time that the citizens of the Village wanted "an imposing edifice that could be pointed to with pride... an ornament and credit to the place... that would answer the needs for many years to come."[30] The editor regarded the design of the Hall as "an entirely harmonious conception adequate in scope, comprehensive in its interior plan, and brilliantly pictorial in the exterior. The central idea of the structure was certainly unique in the vicinity, if not in the country as applied to public buildings, and from whatever standpoint it may be viewed, it presented many picturesque and striking qualities which could render it an object of peculiar interest in the Village."[31]

The building was officially opened on the occasion of the regular March meeting of the trustees on March 18, 1895. The architects, the firm of Rossiter and Wright were in business some time prior to 1881 at 149 Broadway, New York City.[32] Their early work appears to be primarily designing small residences in New Jersey and Connecticut. One of their major works appears to have been a large Romanesque-styled building at Newburgh Academy, Newburgh, New York, in 1886.[33] In 1888 they submitted a design for a competition at Cornell University for Barnes Hall.[34] It was of a curious style with gothic arches and a small pointed tower much like the one proposed for the Village Hall Prospect Street Site. Rossiter and wright also submitted a plan for a residence to be built in South Orange in 1888. It was published in Building magazine.[35] It was for a Mr. W. F. Allen and its design was a Queen Anne shingle style unlike the Village Hall. The last building that the firm listed in American Architect and Building News was called a "Country Home."[36] The illustration showed a large stone and timber house with diamond-paned windows similar to the ones used in the Village Hall. Some time prior to 1894 the firm moved to 47 Liberty Street, New York City.[37]

The period in which the Village Hall was built is considered a transitional one by Gideon.[38] Mumford explains it as the presence of the "two faces of the new civilization -- romanticism and industrialization -- one looking towards the past, the other towards the future." He further explains that industrialism is intent on increasing the physical means of sustenance while romanticism involves living in what he calls "a sickly fashion on the hollow glamour of the past. Where industrialism took root, the traditions of architecture were romanticism flourished, on the other hand, in the mansions and public buildings (Village Hall), and churches, architecture became capricious and absurd and it returned to a past that never existed."[39]

[Rossiter and Wright design for W. F. Allen house, South Orange]

Mumford takes a fairly critical view of the patrons of romanticism such as the residents of South Orange of the 1890'2. These people were coping with a world that was changing rapdidly and not always for the best. They were dealing with the spread of industry and other forms of urban expansions by creating a community primarily residential in character. Their new town hall was to be a symbolic return to the community values associated with another age. It must be pointed out that only the wealth made possible by the industrial age allowed for the creation of the "rural retreat for businessmen."[40]

The design of the building reflects this romantic notion, creating remoteness in both time and place. It is, as the architect states, unique. One could say that the style was influenced by the Arts and Craft Movement in England by men such as Richard Shaw who designed in the Tudor, Jacobean, and Queen Anne styles. Shaw and the rest of the proponents of the movement tried to turn away from the "impersonal grandeur of the age of industry and commerce."[41]

[Main Entrance]

Rossiter and Wright must have been influenced by Andrew Downing and his use of rugged natural material; rough masonry and wood in every form of construction, in clapboarding, half-timbering, and shingles. Local examples of his quasi-medieval buildings were at Llewellyn Park.[42] Also nearby was the Short Hills Casino designed in 1882 by Stanford White, in a Queen Anne shingle style with some half-timbering.[43] Another important input into the choice of the style might have been the fact that South Orange was being advertised as the "Switzerland of America," an inaccurate, though appealing, designation given by some real estate promoters of the period.[44]

[Public Meeting Hall]

How the exact style was chosen is a matter of speculation, but the South Orange Bulletin said that the people of South Orange desired "no shabby structure" that they would be ashamed of, that might be tucked out of sight but "an imposing edifice that could be pointed to with pride."[45] No buildings like the ones already on South Orange Avenue would be suitable because they were of the "soapbox type of architecture," and for this reason they never could be "ornamental."[46]

The Village Hall is more of an honest architectural statement than many other nineteenth century buildings, especially of an earlier date. It belongs to the late Victorian period that used the principles of historical styles and went about producing them with scientific accuracy.[47] Village Hall certainly is not scientifically accurate but does adhere to the principles of half-timbered architecture of medieval Europe. Deviations are minor and include the use of wooden window sashes, classical brick quoins on the corners, and terra cotta, molding around the Trustees' entrance. These classical elements were often used in combination with medieval ones in Queen Anne style architecture. The interior structural framework is quite authentic looking. It is all of timber with trussing over the hall.[48] The exterior materials; half-timbering, bricks, stucco, and the slate of the roof are all in keeping with its medieval character.

One hope of the Trustees during the initial designing of the building was that it would answer the needs of the community for many years to come.[49] The building proved to be inadequate almost at first. In 1902 Rossiter and Wright proposed minor alterations. Major changes were made in 1919 by the architect, Louis Francis Bird, who relocated the stairway closer to South Orange Avenue side and enclosed the rear of the hall for office space. The arcade facing Scotland Road was also enclosed at this time for office space, sacrificing a key element of the original plan. Mr. Bird was also a resident of South Orange as was Mr. Wright. His office was also located in New York City. More changes were proposed by Bird in 1925, including the addition of a rather nondescript garage (compared to the original building) to the rear of the Hall for the Fire Department, thereby allowing the old Fire Department doors to be replaced by windows to create even more office space. The iron fence along South Orange Avenue was also added at that time.[50]

[Garage Addition of 1925]

In 1930 the Fire Department was relocated into a new Building.[51] This move allowed for the Police Department to set up headquarters at the Hall for the first time as they were the only Village department never before housed there.[52] In 1958 a plan was conceived by a local architect, W. Mitchell, for adding a second floor onto the 1925 garage vacated years earlier by the Department to give added space for the Police Department.[53] Fortunately for the integrity of the building, the plan was dropped in favor of creating a new building on the corner of South Orange Avenue and Grove Road in 1972.

The most recent plan for renovations was completed in 1974 by the firm of Flatt and Poole. They proposed several alternative schemes for remodeling the building primarily to make use of the now-abandoned police department.[54] These plans were never carried out. A consulting firm hired by the Trustees in 1961 made recommendations, including building a new civic center, available for commercial activity.[55] Fortunately for the preservation of the Hall, the proposal was dropped but nothing helped to prevent is possible destruction in the future until it was designated a state Historic Landmark in December 1975.[56]

An official of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection explained at the time that the "State Register of Historic Places was established by law in 1970 and that a property placed on the state register cannot be encroached upon, damaged, or destroyed, by any state, county, or municipal agency without prior written authorization of the Commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection."[57] Aside from the legal protection offered by the designation it made the Trustees and the public alike more aware of the historical and architectural importance of the building. In May of that same year $52,000 was appropriated by the Trustees for roof and exterior repairs, something very important for the preservation of the structure.[58]

It is important that the Village Hall be preserved because it still does function as it was intended to as "the center of the political world of the community."[59] It still houses the town meetings and most of the Village offices are still located there, even though the population today is over 17,000. South Orange is no longer the "rural retreat for businessmen" it once was.[60] One could not call it rural, but it is indeed still a community residential in character striving for its own identity in the continuing urban sprawl. The Village Hall symbolizes the uniqueness and is still "an imposing edifice that can be pointed to with pride."[61]

[View From South Orange Avenue Today]