SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

November 29, 2013

Old Town House set to reopen after renovation

By Jonathan Phelps
Staff writer

---- — MARBLEHEAD — The Old Town House had a good run as polling place in town — nearly three centuries. But the tradition came to an end a few years ago with the historical building not being up to code.

That was before the installation of an elevator and other accessibility improvements were made to the three-story building, erected in 1727.

After months of renovations, the building is set to reopen to the public, and selectmen are hoping for voters to return. The work also included new bathrooms, flooring and fresh coats of paint.

“What is nice about the project is it provides the accessibility sought by the original project design, but it maintains the historic character of the building,” said Town Administrator Jeff Chelgren.

Contractors were putting the finishing touches on the renovation earlier this week, including spackling and painting walls and testing an electronic accessible door on the basement level of the building.

Voting used to take place in the cramped basement with an accessible ramp that was too steep. The elevator will now allow for voting on the building’s spacious first floor.

The building is known for hosting pre-Revolutionary War meetings, with George Washington, Marquis de Lafayette and others attending. It is one of the oldest town halls in America that has been in continuous use, according to the town.

Chelgren said selectmen have voted for the polling place to return but are awaiting approval from the state.

All major work has been completed, said Pam Peterson, executive director of the Marblehead Museum and Historical Society. She also served on the town’s Old Town House Oversight Committee for the project.

“It is just the last little tweaks,” Peterson said. “It is just like moving day where there are little bits and pieces.”

The Marblehead Forever Committee will host a grand reopening on Dec. 7, with a ribbon-cutting at 10:30 a.m. Old photographs of the building will be on exhibit during an open house until 4 p.m. and noon to 3 p.m. the next day.

The $675,000 project was approved during an override vote in 2012, after failing in 2011. Renovations started in February.

“The purpose was to restore full public access and use of the building,” said Becky Cutting, town planner.

Along with the return of voting, the building is now better suited to host other events such as lectures, functions and art exhibits, officials said.

“I think everyone has a great affection for the building,” Peterson said. “It is certainly one of the centerpieces of the historic district.”

The top floor of the building features the Grand Army of the Republic meeting hall and a Civil War museum run by the Marblehead Museum. GAR was a post-Civil War veterans organization founded to support soldiers and their families, according to the museum.

The hall itself was preserved to look exactly the same as when the last GAR meeting was held in the 1930s. Even the Bible is displayed on the exact same page, Peterson said.

Outside the meeting hall, the top floor has been renovated at the Marblehead Museum’s expense with new floors and display cases for Civil War artifacts, which were haphazardly displayed before. It now looks like a museum, displaying uniforms and weapons with write-ups of historical facts about the war on panels and the windows.

“There wasn’t much text or anything,” Peterson said. “People would get up here and be interested, but I don’t think they necessarily knew what it is about.”

Peterson said the museum is still raising money for the project.

“We are grateful because it gave us the opportunity to renovate this space, which I wanted to do for a long time,” Peterson said.

The main hall to the building remains much the same with a fresh coat of paint. A corner section of the hall was cut off to make room for the elevator.

The basement has been modernized with new bathrooms, rooms and a ramp for handicapped accessibility. As a nod to its history as the town’s police station from 1853 to 1961, the basement also hosts the town’s police museum. Several old jail cells will be restored with old-fashioned jail doors as part of the renovation.

Chelgren said the work helps to keep the historic building active. He said he hopes the future use of the building will help the economic climate for area businesses.

“It means so much,” he said. “It is the historical Town Hall and a primary feature in our downtown commercial district. There are so many people that have great memories of that building and its function since the 1700s.”

Staff writer Jonathan Phelps can be reached at 978-338-2527 or by email at jphelps@salemnews.com. Follow him on Twitter at JPhelps_SN.