After a six-year absence from public view, the North Kingstown Town Hall, which had served the community for 127 years prior to it being vacated, is open for business once again. It has tastefully been brought into the 21st century, with a well thought out restoration and an appropriate addition that just adds to the elegance of the building. My visit to the “Old Grande Dame” last week got me to thinking about how the building all began and what she looked like originally. So, let’s take a look at the story behind this building that we are all now going to be able to get reacquainted with.
At a special Town Meeting held in August of 1887, the citizenry of North Kingstown approved an appropriation of $20,000 for the construction of a Town Hall, to replace the circa 1807 Town Meeting House which was at that time felt to be inadequate and out of date for needs of the growing community.
Mill owners Walter Rodman and William Gregory, the latter of whom would one day become governor, along with prominent Quidnessett farmer George Albert Spink, were appointed as a committee to carry out this action. Their first acts were to hire architect Edgar B. Peck of Providence to design the building, and to purchase the old “Circus Ground Lot” from Joseph Reynolds as the building site. This lot on Hamilton Avenue (now known as Boston Neck Road) located adjacent to the Wickford Rail Depot, had been utilized for many years by traveling circus troops as a place to set up their shows each season.
The building committee later hired the R. A. Woodbury Co of Pawtucket to do the masonry work, Sherman Brothers Builders of North Kingstown to do the rough and finish carpentry, John Maglone also of North Kingstown to do landscaping and site work, and E. W. Lovell of East Greenwich to do the plumbing. The building when completed in late 1888 was described as “an adaptation of the Romanesque style with an imposing as well as substantial appearance”. It features a “gabled frontispiece over the main entrance, and achieves its obvious visual interest through a variety of textures of patterned brick and bands of rough-hewn stonework”. Upon completion of project, Gregory, Rodman, and Spink, coming in slightly under budget, returned $211.33 of the original $20,000 appropriation to the Town coffers.
The original layout of the building was as follows:
The basement level was occupied by three 4’ X 8’ jail cells, with associated space for the Town Sergeant, a pump and furnace room with the pump being utilized to fill the large oaken tank in the attic which was utilized to run the building’s sanitary plumbing, storage space, The Town’s official weights and measures certification equipment, and an office for the building janitor.
The ground floor featured a 10 foot wide corridor at the full length of the center of the building, with the Town Clerk’s office on the right hand side; immediately behind that was the records and fire-proof vault room and behind that was the staircase leading to the basement and the second floor. On the left side of the first floor was the Probate and Council Room with accommodations for 100 people along with a private consulting chamber.
Behind that was a 10’ X 15’ room designated as a shared space for the School Committee and Town Treasurer. The upper floor of the building was completely occupied by a spacious 41’ X 42’ Town Council meeting room. The western end of the room was built as a raised platform for the Town Clerk and Town Moderator to officiate from.
It had seating for 250 citizens as well as assembly chairs for the Town Council members. The room also featured two ventilators in the ceiling made of ash for ventilation during summer time meetings and heated debates. The building throughout was finished off in polished ash wood trim, with soapstone walls below an ash chair rail. The floors were all made from polished white cedar and the windows were amply large and featured beautiful stained cathedral glass borders.
The building opened to rave reviews in January of 1889 and the newspapers of the day remarked that “our citizens can now point with pride to their Town Hall and compare it with the municipal edifices of many cities without any fear of its suffering by the comparison.”
This fact held true for the next 31 years until the early morning hours of December 11, 1920.
On that day local resident Leighton Willis was walking to the Wickford Depot to catch the very first train out of the village when he discovered that there was a massive fire raging in the building. The Town’s volunteer fire department sprang into action, utilizing the recently purchased motorized LaFrance fire pumper, and began fighting the flames. The LeFrance was placed near the Hamilton Bridge at Wickford Cove and 2000 feet of hose rolled out to pump salt water on to the flames. The main Hallway was fully engulfed along with ceiling above. After a few hours the flames were extinguished, but damage to the building was extensive.
Luckily the town’s records, dating back to the 1600’s and already damaged by an 1850 blaze at a Wickford Bank in which they were then stored, were safely ensconced in their fireproof vault. The beautiful North Kingstown Town Hall however was not so lucky. The bright and cheery white cedar floors were gone, the extensive polished ash trim and decorative soapstone walls were destroyed by the fire, which had originated in a small electrical utility closet off of the main corridor, and all of the well appointed furnishings were either burned or ruined by the saltwater utilized to put out the fire.
To add insult to injury, the Town Hall itself was grossly under-insured. Only $14,500 was available to rebuild and refurnish the structure and no more funds beyond that were allocated to do the job.
While the Town Hall interior was being rebuilt, the Town Council and Probate Court met in the Wickford Fire Barn on West Main Street and the town offices were temporarily relocated to the second floor of the Brown Street North Kingstown Free Library as well as the homes of some of the town’s officials. When town workers moved back into the Town Hall in late 1921, it was to a decidedly less grand building. The North Kingstown Town Hall would never be the same, and three decades later it was further uglified by a one-story flat-roofed wrap around brick addition. The final nail in the grand old buildings coffin was delivered in the 1970s when an ill-advised “modernization” was undertaken complete with drop ceilings, supposedly to save in heating costs, and further interior partitioning of the once grand second floor meeting room.
Now that the grand restoration is complete, if you know where to look in this fine old municipal building you can see hints of what it once was. The cathedral glass borders on the windows are still in evidence in the upper rooms, and the ancient ashwood ventilators, constructed locally by the Sherman Brothers, have been revealed again in the meeting room upstairs. I’ve got to say, I expect the spirits of Governor William Gregory, textile magnate Walter Rodman, and well-heeled farmer George Spink are truly pleased by what stands on the old Circus Grounds today and we all should be too.