4: Saving Town Hall

4: Saving Town Hall

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Empowered Woman

Saving Town Hall

Start by doing what is necessary, then what is possible, and suddenly you are doing the impossible.

~St. Francis of Assisi

One February evening in 2001, my husband Jimmy came home from work and said, “Our Board of Selectmen voted to demolish Ashland’s historic 1855 Town Hall and replace it with a brick imposter.” I’d never noticed the building in our downtown before, but Jimmy is an architect and he was concerned, so I asked for more details. “It’s a simple but elegant Greek Revival building with ornate details that disappear into the all-white color scheme,” he said.

That weekend, we drove over to Town Hall and walked around the two-story antique’s perimeter. He pointed out its classic but neglected gable, frieze, pilasters and windows. “See how the old windowpanes distort the reflected trees, clouds and sky, creating a wall of tiny, ever-changing abstract paintings?” he said. “It means they’re the original windows.”

His praise of the architecture triggered something in me, something almost motherly, something so fierce I could not stop it. I saw the building in an entirely new light and knew this defenseless beauty of yesteryear needed someone to save it from destruction. That someone, I decided, would be me.

The next week, I hurried down to a Historical Commission meeting where I asked for the committee’s plan to stop the demolition. The elderly members looked at each other with puzzlement. Then the chair said, “It’s not practical because of the large expense. You’d have to hoist it up on girders to shore up the foundation.” He continued, “We don’t have the resources for such a project.”

At first, I felt dejected, even silly for having such a crazy idea. But later I became emboldened, eager to push myself in ways I didn’t think possible. I was determined to save this building even if the Historical Commission wasn’t going to give me any help. Then, in what was to become the first of many firsts, I wrote a letter to the editor of the local paper decrying the demolition. I contacted another person who wrote a letter to the editor, and we formed a tiny group called “Save Ashland Town Hall.” That led to phone calls from other residents wanting to help. Every week, our group got a little bigger. As it turns out, a lot of residents wanted the building saved, but didn’t have any idea how to do so.

Neither did I. But I took on the challenge anyway, deciding I’d figure out what needed to be done along the way.

I went to my first Board of Selectmen meeting in the basement of Town Hall and asked the intimidating men sitting in front of me to save Town Hall. “No. We need a new, larger one,” they said. “Besides, it’s not even historic. It’s not like Abe Lincoln ever slept here.”

Their responses made me rethink the cultural norm of destroying something small, unique and handcrafted to build something large, generic and mass-produced, of disowning something that had local but not national value, of denying the historical significance and markers of everyday people.

The selectmen spoke of progress. But what exactly was my town progressing toward?

I spent my Wednesdays and Saturdays at the Historical Society going through microfiche and newspaper files, discovering my town’s rich history and how much of it had taken place within the hallowed rooms of our old Town Hall. The building had also served as a jail, a high school, a community center, a Cub Scout headquarters, a movie theater, and a ballroom. Ironically, I discovered that an Abe Lincoln had slept there one night, albeit a resident and not the one who was our sixteenth president.

I spoke at more Board of Selectmen meetings as a way to reach out to the residents watching the meeting on cable at home. “Men who fought in the Civil War — at Gettysburg, Spotsylvania and Fredericksburg — danced above us upstairs during Grand Army of the Rebellion balls,” I said. “If that isn’t historic, I don’t know what is.”

A small group of us held community meetings, hosted cable shows, gave speeches, enticed newspapers to do stories, distributed posters, spoke at town meetings and got the school-age kids involved. But, most importantly, we re-discovered a long shuttered, second-floor ballroom behind a locked door. I managed to get a town employee to let us in.

At the top of the aged oak stairs, I found a cavernous hall with seventeen-foot ceilings, an intact stage, a rosette in the ceiling and ornate plaster molding surrounding the edges — all in need of repair. It was hidden away from the modern world, a place where time stood still. Images of the room’s old-fashioned beauty spread like wildfire. People wanted to see it, to keep it, to have a say in the way their town looked, to celebrate the loveliness that already existed. The grassroots effort to save the building quadrupled in size.

During one of my daily walks around the neighborhood, a guy drove by and shouted, “Save Town Hall.” People stopped me all over town and said, “I saw you on cable. Thank you,” and “I wish I had the courage to stand up for something I believed in.”

But it wasn’t all municipal wine and roses. The folks who wanted to raze the building spread mistruths about the building’s historical and physical integrity. They said the second floor was likely to fall down. They said the building could not be rehabbed. They said it would never be on the National Register of Historic Places. And those unkind remarks spread to the folks trying to save it. My neighbor said they were saying terrible things about me, like “Who is this girl? She’s trying to sabotage the government.” Other folks in our group received calls saying, “You don’t know who you’re up against.”

The opposition proved formidable.

To counter any self-doubt, I trained myself to imagine the renovated, registered historic structure standing tall and proud in our town. I imagined children climbing the wide, antique staircase to gaze up at the intricate rosette. I imagined proud residents taking pictures out front and inside during the grand opening celebration.

Even my boss noticed a difference in me. He said, “You seem really alive, excited about life.” Honestly, the most surprised person in town during these months was me. Never before in my life had I given anything my “all.” I didn’t know I possessed such persistence.

In the end, my fellow citizens and I battled for Town Hall and won. The people of the town voted to issue a $4 million bond to renovate the building. I saw the project through by serving for three years on the renovation committee. Once finished, our Town Hall became a downtown jewel and the first building in Ashland to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places. The new Town Manager reported that citizens and vendors who visited the Town Hall proclaimed it “one of the prettiest in Massachusetts.”

As for me, I became a woman who stood up for what she believed in and saw it through. Since saving Town Hall, I’ve encouraged others to stand up for what they believe, to take that first step into the limelight, to challenge authority. And although I didn’t realize it at the time, by stepping up to save the Town Hall, I actually saved myself, too. I rediscovered the power within me that had been there all along.

~Giulietta Nardone

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