Village Hall History
Excerpt from South Orange – Village Symbol
by Clare Rex Wiesman and Arthur Klimowicz, circa 1975
How did Village Hall come to be?
South Orange Village was incorporated in 1869. The elected body, the Board of Trustees serves two years without remuneration; dependent on citizen volunteers to enhance the services to the public. Of the 567 municipalities in New Jersey, only one other town, Loch Arbor in Monmouth County, is incorporated as a village.
For the first twenty-five years of their existence, the Trustees held their meetings in rented quarters first on the second floor of the Smith and Lum building which they shared with the South Orange Library. They moved to the Becker Building (still standing in #6 and #8 South Orange Avenue) because the rent of $50.00 a year was prohibitive for the accommodations afforded—alas for the good old days.
By 1892, the Village had grown, more services were added, the duties of the trustees had expanded, there was no place to keep official records (the village clerk kept his records in his house) so there was a need for an official home for their activities. At the village meeting on December 15, 1892, Timothy Barrett, one of the Trustees, introduced a resolution that “the Village of South Orange should issue bonds to the amount of $5000 to erect a building for the use of…the Board of Trustees, the village clerk, the auditor, and the fire and water departments… that the building shall be erected in the area of the common (part of Irvington Avenue). The editor of the South Orange Bulletin criticized the proposal, not because it was unnecessary, but because too little monies were being spent on the project. Public opinion was on the side of the editor.
In February 1894, the Trustees announced a definite site, owned by the Presbyterian Church, on Prospect and Irvington Avenues. This location was not the choice of the Citizens of South Orange. They wanted their symbol where they could see it at all times, on South Orange Avenue, and they told the Trustees so. At a public hearing on March 13, 1894, 90% of the citizens declared themselves against the Irvington Avenue location, and in favor of the village, decided where their Village Hall would be located.
At that same public hearing, Mr. Hart stated that the Village Charter did not authorize the erection of two separate buildings from the bond issue, so the Village Hall and the fire department had to be incorporated in the same building. The fire department had been organized in 1891, and was housed in a stable on Vose Avenue.
On May 21, 1894, at the regular Trustee Meeting, Trustee Timothy Barrett recommended purchase of the Roth property at Scotland Street and South Orange Avenue at a cost of $6000. Almost everyone agreed that this location would show off the Hall to the best advantage. It would take up the void immediately apparent on South Orange Avenue opposite the stately Columbia School building “to which it would serve as a complement”
At the Board Meeting on June 18, 1894, the Trustees decided to purchase the lot. On June 25, at a special meeting, $11,000 was warranted for payment of the lot. On July 23, the final plans and specifications for the building were accepted. Rossiter and Wright of New York were the architects for Village Hall. Mr. Wright was a resident of South Orange. The plans were modified from those prepared in January, 1894. The building was to be unique in design. It was based on a study for the half-timber 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 50 feet. The foundations would be stone; the first story walls would be of brick, with pressed brick corners. The upper half of the exterior 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 had 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.
The upper story would be finished in plaster of a reddish orange tint, 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 the very best make. The main hall in the second story would be 35x36, and have a seating capacity for 300 people. The roof of the meeting room would be of open timber work, the trusses being open pine, and the wainscoting of cypress. The woodwork would be mainly cypress. The platform would serve as a meeting room for trustees. 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 would be two large rooms divided by flexi-fold doors so that they might be thrown open to make one large room.
The aim of the architects was to design a building typical of the place, for a community of country type homes, an area with few places of business. They chose a quiet unpretentious structure, many gabled and picturesque, with a tower and a clock, as old villages were want to have, and a general air of dignified simplicity which would be a rest for the eye. It was accepted by the villagers as “the center of their political world.” The contracts were awarded on August 6, 1894, the total amount of the contract was $12,171. On October 22, authorization was made to purchase a bell for the building for $300, a bronze plate for inscription and letters for $100, and a clock for the tower for $285. The bell was placed in position on January 17, 1895 and was tested. It had a clear sound. It was used as a fire bell. When the belfry was removed the bell disappeared.
On February 18, 1895, a resolution was adopted to spend not more than $800 for furnishing the new Village Hall. The editor of the South Orange Bulletin said the design for the Hall was “an entirely harmonious conception, adequate in scope, comprehensive in its interior plan, and brilliantly pictorial in its exterior.” 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. He felt that it was “safe to say that its fame would travel much further than the confines of the village.” It was felt at that time that ta 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.
The new hall was finally opened on the occasion of the regular March meeting of the trustees on the night of March 18, 1895. Just before the meeting the fire department, under the command of William Decker, lined up in the front of the Hall for an inspection. There was a parade through the village led by Marwith’s band, all the men marched and the fire apparatus suitable decorated with flags and bunting made a grand appearance. Edward Self delivered the dedication address. The bronze tablet was put in position in the entry of the Hall. Behind the tablet is a box containing several documents placed there by the building committee. The box is attached to the plate and can be taken out at any time. What better time to look at the documents that in the bicentennial year?
The Village Hall housed the fire department until 1930, when it was moved into its new building at Sloan and First Streets. The Police Department then moved into the Vacated space in Village Hall. It may have been at that time that the belfry was removed. A thousand pound bell disappeared—where did it go? The clock in the tower used to be wound by hand. It was done every Saturday night from 1900 to the 1940s by John Dohm and his son of Dohm’s Jewelry Store on South Orange Avenue. Since that time the mechanism has been electrified, and is the responsibility of Kenneth Kroll of Village Hall. The Police Department and the Municipal Court moved out of Village Hall in 1972 into a new building at South Orange Avenue rear Grove Road. Crowded Village hall was able to add space for their office personnel.
George Washington did not deliver an address here, Abraham Lincoln did not stand on its steps, Grover Cleveland did not visit the edifice, but we look with pride at our historic symbol. It is ours, and it will be there for our children’s children. It is South Orange.