The Building of the Village Hall

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By: Arthur Klimowicz
South Orange Public Library
Summer 1973


"Historic Preservation is a state of mind that says we should save the best of the past as it relates to our national, state and local heritage. Such retention of our historic patrimony in its physical form gives people a feeling of time and place".
"True historic preservation is objective in its attitude. That is, it regards all periods and styles as inherently equal for learning about our past". - David N. Poinsett, New Jersey State Supervisor of Historic Sites. "Historic Preservation Week". New Jersey Historical Commission Newsletter, April, 1973, p. 6.

The Building of the Village Hall

South Orange, NJ

          When its first public hall was being built in 1894 South Orange Village was almost 25 years old. It had already become well-known as a fine community of distinguished citizens and had developed into a rural retreat for the businessmen of New York and Newark. Commuting to New York was made possible after the D.L.& W. extended the rail line from Hoboken to New York in 1868, and so many successful business men settled in the village, building elegant homes for themselves. South Orange was described in a railroad booklet as having "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". Some real estate developers even advertised South Orange as "The Switzerland of America".

          Architecture was seen to have taken rapid strides in the past few years, and people with good taste were ready for something better than the "many plain brick structures" that encumbered neighborhood town even though these were more moderate than the "grimly tall edifices" which rose above noisy city streets

          It was said that from the time the Village received its charter in 1869 "the one prevailing idea of the founders was that it should ever be the home of people of culture and refinement". Especially from the time of centennial celebration of the country's independence a group like the New England Society, active in the Oranges, was concerned with the preservation fo their cultural heritage. They still valued the way of life of their fathers who had come from the area of New Milford, Connecticut and settled here to become "The Mountain Society". They had misgivings about new and changing life styles in New York, Newark and even the city of Orange itself. But South Orange Village was a yet a "homelike place", where the inheritance of the neighborly spirit was still effective in many ways. The old timers dreaded the coming of the city, which now seemed about to replace the old atmosphere , and so they were not in sympathy with ideas like annexation to Orange, much less the political consolidation of all the Oranges with Newark. 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".

          Therefore the South Orange fathers had chosen the older simpler governmental form of village when the community was incorporated in 1869. They were satisfied to have received a minimum of powers, just enough to provide essential services and facilities not already dispensed by the township or county. The elected body, the Board of Trustees, was made responsible for carrying out its own policies, serving two year terms without remuneration. Citizen committees and volunteer organizations would enhance the services to the public. Paid officials like the Village Clerk were appointed by the Trustees.

          A village may attain city status by a vote of the people or by special act, and so it is evident that most citizen of South Orange have preferred the lesser designation and the informality of village government even until today. They also must be of the opinion that the increase of population has not compelled a change of status so that the government should get greater tax and service authority. South Orange and the other municipalities are the only incorporated villages remaining in New Jersey.

          For the first 25 years, the Trustees held their meetings in rented quarters, first in the library, which was located on the second floor over Smith and Lum's, Booksellers and Printers Stores, at the corner of South Orange Avenue, and the present Sloan Street. (Beck's Hardware Store occupied the First Floor at a later date).

          On April 1, 1875, the Village Trustees moved to the (Wilson) Decker Building "because the $50.00 a year rental was too large for the accommodations afforded". Then new, the Decker building still stands with an altered front, and is now #6 and #8 South Orange Avenue.

          A public hall for the village were first considered early in 1892.

          At the town meeting held on December 15, 1892, one of the Trustees, Timothy Barrett, introduced a resolution 'That the Village of South Orange issue the bonds of the Village to the amount of $5000 to pay for the expense of erecting a public building for the use of the Board of Trustees, Village Clerk, Auditor, Treasurer, and Fire and Water Departments. Resolved that said building shall be erected in the Common, at a place designated by the :committee on Rooms". (This portion of the Common was formerly part of Irvington Avenue.)

          The Village President at this time was Edward F. Church. The other trustees were Edgar M. Taylor, C. Edward Billqvist, William H. Clarkson, F.A. Wright and W.F. Allen. Mr. Barrett was to remain as the official most concerned with planning the new Village Hall

          The first proposal of a site for the hall was criticized in an editorial in the local paper, The South Orange Bulletin as calling for too little expenditure.

          This newspaper was to prove most effective as a vehicle for marshaling public opinion on behalf of what would be the most ambitious plans for the new Village Hall. Every public meeting and event was covered in its pages. The editor was an independent in local politics and he was "well supported by all classes of people in the Village of South Orange and its surroundings".

          By June, 1894, the site for a new Town Hall had not yet been selected. Elections had been held in April for three Trustees whose terms were expired. The new Board which had started in May consisted of: Eugene V Connett, President, along with Philip H. Campbell, Dr. Henry A. Pulsford, William H. Clarkson, Dr. Henry A. Mandeville, Walter J. McCoy, and Timothy Barrett. Mr. Barrett was Chairman of the Committee on Public Buildings. Nothing was done in this matter save the awarding of bonds that might perhaps be issued to provide funds for the work.

          Since the rejection of the Prospect Street site, a diversity of opinion prevailed as to which was the best spot, but the editor of the Bulletin felt that the east corner of Scotland Street and South Orange Avenue had the most adherents. The Trustees had considered that a spot on South Orange Avenue would be best, except for the high cost of lots anywhere on the main thoroughfare. Lots on Vose Avenue, Irvington Avenue and Prospect Street were mentioned.

          As to the main avenue, lots from either side of the Liberty Pole were considered.

          Ex-president Edward Self had advised the Board in March to secure the removal of the old frame church (First Prebyterian Church) and school buildings, and erect in their stead a public building. He thought that the next lot in eligibility could be the Roth property on the opposite side of the avenue.

          At a meeting of the Board on May 21, Mr. Barrett indicated that Isabella C. Taintor offered 1114 feet on South Orange Avenue, corner of Prospect Street for $5000, or 239 feet on South Orange Avenue at $63.00 per foot; that L. Roth and Sons had 100 feet on South Orange Avenue (on the north side - not at the Scotland Street corner), at $60.00 per foot. Mr. Barrett recommended a contract be drawn for the purchase of the Roth lot at $6000 but agreement could not be reached on this. Dr. Mandeville, for one, said he believed the public was in favor of a corner lot or one of a more prominent position. The other trustees at that time felt that the cost of Roth's corner was prohibitive. The corner of the Roth property on South Orange Avenue extending back on Scotland Street 150 feet could be purchased for $105 per foot linear measure. Roth's inner lot, at $6000 was only $1200 more than the contemplated site on the side street.

          When the architectural advantages of the Roth corner lot were generally considered, few people disagreed with the advisability of its choice on the basis of cost. Some people proposed building on it, even if the Trustees would have o rent the first floor for business or entertainment for some time to defray the cost. It was finally acknowledged as the best site in the Village for the location of the Town Hall. It would show off the greatest advantage and it would be convenient for the transaction of public business.

          It would take up the void immediately apparent on South Orange Avenue opposite the stately Columbia School Building "to which it would service as a complement". It would be on the broad thoroughfare, "within the shadow of the Liberty Pole", and at the intersection of two broad streets, it would "loom up in grand style, commanding a magnificent view from the mountain and other approaches to the Village". also, in the absence of sewerage, little if any other property was available at all on the Avenue having the "facility of a natural outlet for drainage equal to that of the Roth corner, which had been the old Albert Smith Estate. The very foundation (was) a natural quarry, which might be utilized at quite a saving in the construction".

          At the Board meeting of June 18, 1894, the Trustees finally decided to purchase the lot corner of Scotland street and South Orange Avenue, and few if any people had any criticism to offer on this action. Additional plans had to be procured for the building, and these were promised for the next meeting in July. At a special meeting on June 25 $11,000 was warranted for payment of the lot. On July 2 the public building bonds were signed and Michael O'Reilly was allowed to remove the frame building from the lot, which adjoined L. Roth's store and situate in on his lot on Church Street.

          At a short session of the Board on July 23, at long last, the final plans and specifications for the New Village Hall were accepted. Different plans had been elaborated for just about every site previously considered. Bids for work on the hall would be opened on August 6.

          The building was to be much better than the original plan allowed, and far better accommodations were to be afforded the firemen. But no provision was to be put in for a first floor hall for public entertainment.

          Rossiter and Wright of New York City were the architects for the Village Hall to be built at South Orange Avenue and Scotland Street. Mr. Wright was a resident of South Orange.

          The building was to be unique in design. It was based on a study of the half-timer work of England and Germany during the Elixabethan period. The German style was closely followed in the tower which would rise to a height of 50 feet. The foundation would be stone, the first story walls would be of brick, with pressed brick corners. The upper half o the exterior would be half-timer work with Portland cement between the panels. Molten brick would be used, which "from its close contact with the first in the kiln... has acquired a flinty nature that renders it impervious to moisture and at the same time produces a pleasing contract tot he quoins of red brick".

          "The upper story (would) be finished in plaster of a reddish orange tine and the woodwork in the gables and 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 until 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."

          "It was proposed to have in bronze letter 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 world "Village Hall, Trustee Entrance" and "1894" (would) be worked in the ornamentation. The three dormers (were to) open into the hall on the second story and afford its principal light".

          "The heating throughout the building (would) be steam and in the basement provision(would) be made for coal storage and a room for the water department to test the meters and store them".

          "Facing Scotland Street, 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 feet with hollow fireproof walls, solid brick dome and regulation safe doors and combination locks (would) be provided for the custody of the village documents. Further provision for the storage of less important papers (was) to be made in the tower, (with) arrangements made in the tower also for the drying of the hose of the fire departments."

          "The easterly side of the building (was to ) be given up to the first 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 doors so that the (might) be thrown in to one room. Each room (would) have a private entrance from the side, and the main staircase hall (would) have a private side entrance. The firemen intended putting in a shower bath and tub at their own expense."

          "The main hall in the second story (would) be 35x56 and have a seating capacity of from 300 to 350. 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 stage. One either side of the platform (would) be a room, one for the president and the other for a committee room."

          These plans were modified from those prepared in January, 1894 by Rossiter and Wright for the Prospect Street site. The exterior design was the same in principle; the firemen's quarters and the tower were located differently. The uniqueness of the style had been indicated in a two page article featuring the facade and floor plans in the American Architect and Building News for January 20, 1894. At that time the plans had the facade facing east (on Prospect Street); there were four, not three arches to the loggia; the tower rose from the left corner of the facade, not the right; the entrance to the room for the fire apparatus came between the tower and the loggia; the firemen were to have their second room in the basement, below their first, since almost all the basement was to be above ground (the grading receded steeply to the back); the staircase rose from the right-hand corner of the facade; the offices were otherwise situated on the first floor; two dormers, not three, opened into the second story hall; there was no clock below the belfry; exterior paneling on the tower extended above the brick of the first floor all the way up to the top.

          At the Board meeting held on August 6, 1894, Mr. Barrett's committee recommended that contracts for the work on the public building be awarded as follows: for carpenter work including plumbing, gas, fitting, copper work, painting, flag pole, slating, $7440 to Alexander Melville: for the mason work, Martin A. Brennan $3265.00; for heating, Edward Dunn and Co. $806.00; Total: $11,511.

          On October 1 it was resolved to complete the fire vault in the new building at a cost of $175.00 which sum included masonry and iron work, and also to case the walls and ceiling of the hose room with North Carolina pine at a cost of $100.00

          On October 22, authorization was made to purchase a bell for the building for $300, a bronze plate for inscirption and letters, for $100, and a clock for the tower for $285.00.

          "The bell was placed in position on January 17, 1895 and was tested. It had a clear sound."

          On February 18, 1895, a resolution was adopted to spend not more than $800.00 for furnishings for the new Village Hall.

          And so the citizens of South Orange got what they wanted: "An imposing edifice that could be pointed to with pride", ..."an ornament and credit to the place"..."that would answer needs for many years to come."

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

          The editor of the South Orange Bulletin regarded the design for the hall as "an entirely harmonious conception, adequate in scope, comprehensive in its interior plan, and brilliantly pictorial in the exterior". He said too that "the central idea of the structure was certainly unique in (the) vicinity, if not in the country as applied to public buildings, and (that) from whatever standpoint it might be viewed, it presented many picturesque and striking qualities which could render it an object of peculiar interest in (the)village". When the building rapidly assumed proportions in October of 1894 he commented that "the character of the material employed in its construction (was) so novel and striking that the building (was) viewed with interest by every passer-by". He felt tit was "safe to say, that is fame (would) travel much further than the confines of the village". It was generally felt at the time that a public building should possess some characteristic which (would) separate it from the ordinary business house, and (that) it should be the aim of all communities to make the structure in which they hold a common interest grander and more pretentious than private buildings".

          And so South Orange was to have a town hall "superior in all respects to any similar building in the Oranges".

          The new hall was finally opened on the occasion of the regular March meeting of the Trustees on the night of March 18, 1895.

          That afternoon, before the tablet was put in position in the Village Hall, the building committee placed a box at the back of the tablet containing the customary documents. This was done instead of a formal laying of the corner stone. "The box is attached to the plate and can be taken out at any time". This tablet was the work of Henry J. Feindt of South Orange Avenue.

          Just before the meeting the fire department, under the command of William D. Decker, lined up in front of the hall. "the companies presented a fine appearance and the apparatus was tastefully decorated with flags and bunting... Markwith's band led the parade which, after the inspection, marched through the village".

          At the outset of the first meeting in the new building ex-president Edward Self delivered an address, "on the growth of the Village from its inception, filled with reminiscences of its people and reviewing the transactions of its Board of Trustees, including a grateful and appreciative tribute to those who (had) passed away." Proponents of the "Greater Orange" did not like his remark on this occasion: "I hope that South Orange, now that she is twenty-six years of age, and has just built a home, won't get married and change her name".