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History of Saco City Hall

From the 1950 Saco Annual Report Inaugural Address

Today marks the 82nd Municipal Government which has been inaugurated within this same auditorium. Representative government such as was in effect in Saco and is practiced now under the provisions of our Municipal, State and National Governments, is still the best form of Government in the world and will always remain so, as long as the people are allowed representation and free speech. In order to verify this statement I will present a short history of Saco City Hall which I believe not too many people are familiar with, while attempting to present the economy of the 1856 period of the building as compared with a picture of the difference in 1949.

At the annual meeting of Saco on March 13, 1855 the question of building a Town House was agitated by the local government and the contemporary newspapers. After a stormy town meeting, "The Maine Democrat" of April 13, 1855 explained the situation thus: "During all this time (1762-1855), our Town Meetings have been held wherever a place could be found: sometimes in a church vestry; then in an abandoned church, till that was taken away from us; then in a basement of a church, till private enterprise out-bid the public and put us out of that; then we took refuge in the basement of another church and how soon we may be shut out of this we don't know."

Of the Town Meetings to decide building one was held in Auber and the other in Temporance Hall, private halls then in the Town. The vote in 1819 on Maine's Separation from Massachusetts was taken in the then new Congregational Church.

On March 18, 1855, the Town voted 220 to 201 to build. The selectmen, Seth Scammon, Moses Lowell and Ebenezer Cleaves called on the building Committee for its report and the two alternative plans. Before anything was done, however, some thirty- eight of the leading citizen's/s demanded a mass meeting to undo the verdict. On April 7, at this meeting the vote to build was 460 to 231.

According to the March 7, 1856 issue of "The union (Saco's second newspaper) reported the dedication on March 3 of the Town Hall with due compliments to the building committee and artisans who had carried out their plans. Thomas Hill was the architect and carpenter; the brick work was done by Messers A. & E. E. Cutter. The bricks were from the yard of J. H. Gowen.

To imagine the appearance of the exterior, subtract the present clock tower and entrance, and the addition at the back of the hall; add, in the middle roof, a very handsome cupola from which, on clear days, a view of the two cities and the sea could be had. The roof plan was not unlike that of Thornton Academy gymnasium, but the cupola was large enough to house a clock and bell.

The original auditorium is probably least changed of any part of the interior, except that the platform occupied the end of the structure, with no stage. The size and seating capacity of the Hall and the gallery were the same as now, i.e.. until the settees on the floor were replaced with chairs. It has ventilators and gas lights, and was painted in fresco. The basement was divided into six rooms; at the front the Selectman's and the Town Clerk's rooms, the latter with a spacious bright safe; and the two engine rooms, each with a hall attached, "Where the Niagra boys and the Deluge boys can prepare and partake of their chowder and hold meetings or social festivities."

The dedication services consisted of music by Hubb's band, an address by Honorable George Scamman and extemporary speaking by three clergymen and three political speakers. After the program the building was thrown open for inspection, and the younger ones arranged a dance and tripped the light fantastic until nearly the noon of night.

"The Maine Democrat" March 11, and 25, 1856 supplied a belated account of the cost of the building. Up to the time of dedication the town had paid $18,225.05. In addition the lot has cost $950.00 and there was a deficit and excess over estimate to bring the full cost to $19,950. The amount of $12,950.00 was already appropriated. The town voted the remaining $700.00 on March 18.

A complete list of the furnishings of the hall at this time is supplied by Dr. Harold L. Emmons, Saco, from papers of his grandfather, Leonard Emmons, who remodeled the Hall later.

The Town Hall, after 1867 the City Hall, fulfilled for some 25 years the purposes for which it was designed, from time to time acquiring new departments. About 1859 the York County Court began holding its winter term in the auditorium. By 1868 there were complaints of overcrowding. In 1874 and 1878 the loudest protests came from the Municipal Court, which was sometimes driven to functioning in the engine rooms or in the presiding justices office. Refering to a school, housed temporarily under the City Hall, a judge also protested against keeping 40 or 50 children in an underground room. Later in the year the court was provided with a room in Sweetser Block. At last, the persistence of the Common Council in demanding space began to get action. In July, 1879, the Committee on Public Property was instructed to so change a portion of the lower floor of the City Building that a convenient suite of rooms might be obtained for the use of the council, these to be suitably furnished.

Toward the last of the Seventies in addition to lectures, concerts and other entertainments, which could find satisfactory space on a platform, there are press notices of plays and operas. There was no real stage until after the extension of the building.

Nearly a year later, June 24, 1880, an order to enlarge, remodel and furnish the City Building was introduced by Alderman Enoch Lowell. It was refused. On July 12, a group of eighteen of Saco's leading citizens, headed by A. H. Gilman presented a petition dated July 3rd believing that the wants and needs of the City require additional accommodations in the City Hall respectfully request of the City Council such action as will secure substantially the additions to the building by the plans and specifications furnished by the architect. The Committee on Public Property, consisting of Mayor Oliver C. Clark, Alderman George F. Owen, Councilman Charles S. Jose and Thomas Buckminster, was ordered to build by the plans submitted. The appropriation was $7,000. The partition of the City Building then ordered added a deep stage with suitable dressing rooms to the original platform of the auditorium; and below, the large room known as Frobel Hall. Leonard Emmons was the contractor, with a bid of $5,530.00. Brickwork, plans, painting, and other charges brought to the total of $6,930.76.

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Probably while this operation was still in progress, two hasty sounding orders went forth. October 11, 1880, "Ordered: That the Committee on Public Property cause the bell tower (the original cupola) to be removed from the City Building forthwith."

Looking out from City Hall "Ordered: That the Committee on Public Property cause to be erected as soon as practicable a big tower on the front of the City Building, not to exceed, $3,000.00 in cost." The reason given for these orders was that the bell and the clock with its weights were too heavy for the supporting roof. The present tower is firmly built and reinforced to bear the weight besides offering a better location for the gallery stairs. How far these two operations, both occurring in 1880, were separated is question. In the city books they are two, but the same out-of-town architects planned them and several firms which supplied materials are the same in both. One contractor is named for the tower and it seems probable that Mr. Emmons took charge of that. Both accounts showing that the work was then completed, are given in the City Report on February 1881.

Mayor Oliver C. Clark, who had served a four year term while most of the action was going on, explains in his report the use to which the basement hall was to be put: "The establishment of Dyer Public Library will mark an important epoch in our history. The City has given to the Library Association the free use for an indefinite period of the large basement room in the new portion of the City Building, and the association is now preparing it for the reception of its books." The library was opened on September 15, 1882. At its head was Miss Sarah Tucker, who had been a civil war use, with Mrs. Mary Lane and subsequently Miss Alice Hobson as assistant. John Haley the next librarian, took over about a year before the library was moved to the present building in 1893.

The last adventure to date, of our City Building, occurred on March 16, 1895, when it suffered a disastrous fire. At 11:30 P.M. passersby saw thick smoke rising from the rear ventilator shaft. The Governor Fairfield responded promptly but suffered a series of breaks in its hose line. The old engine, The Saco, was inadequate; the Biddeford department was willing, but late through a misunderstanding. Extension ladders stuck. There was so much smoke that firemen were overcome. In the end, it took the whole Biddeford department to make up for the accidents and misfortunes of the Saco firemen. It was only the back wall of the original building, left standing when it was built in 1880, that saved the structure. The one comic touch, every fire rates one, occurred when a leading eccentric citizen, who insisted on remaining in the building was given a ride down the cascaded front stairs on a hose stream. (Data from "Biddeford Weekly Journal," March 22, 1895.)

The cause of the fire was given as defective wiring in the ventilator. Most of the damage was done by the water. At first it was thought that the damage was light and the hall would soon be in use again, but as a matter of fact, the building was under repair from April to October, at a cost of $5,347.53. The auditorium suffered most, and perhaps the most regrettable loss was the dance floor, which had long been celebrated for its quality. The City records were unharmed, and all the historic pictures were rescued. A. K.P. Chellis was the carpenter who superintended repairing the wood work; Burnham and Bragdon, the masonry. Peter Holdensen the artist, redecorated the hall.

Saco City Hall then is nearly 90 years old and has stood through four generations, including that of the builders. Its walls have echoed to the voices of children of May Festivals, of graduates and of actors, singers and instrument. Moderns, like the younger set in 1856, have tripped the Light Fantastic until the noon of night. It has known the dignity of City Governments and of Courts, and resounded to the speeches of famous men and women. Within its walls the departing troops of four of America's wars have been given God Speed. Silver voices of Herois Bugles have sounded welcome for returning veterans and taps for those who would not return.

For the older citizens, whose forebears fathered the enterprise of building and who can recall decades of its life, the Hall may be regarded as a shrine of memories. To newcomers, knowledge of the Building's history may bring respect for the City they have adopted. To all, the Hall may stand as a symbol of one of New England's oldest settlements, the visible home center of the City we all wish to make worth of its past as well as secure for its future.