From near demise to revival
BY ANGELO LYNN
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BRANDON — After scraping the ceiling panels 42 feet off the ground floor this spring, a final coat of paint on the ceiling moldings and trim around the main hall of Brandon’s Town Hall has this stately and historic building looking better than ever — an amazing reversal of fortunes that at one time had pegged this historic building for the junk pile and its downtown location for a parking lot.
“Today, it seems incredible that the intent of the town 24 years ago was to tear it down and turn the space into parking,” Dennis Marden, president of the Friends of Brandon Town Hall, said of the discussion among town leaders back in the late 1990s. But, he recalled, the building was largely abandoned since 1979, when it was last used for Town Meeting.
During the next 20 years it was used as a storage place for some town documents and miscellaneous records, sporadic events and failed efforts to restore its former usefulness. By the 1990s, however, it was deteriorating from underuse and lack of maintenance — a sad state of affairs for a building that had long been the social hub of the community.
The town hall was constructed in 1861, with the selectboard allocating the town to borrow up to $7,500 “for the expense of building the town hall and the land for the same.” Despite some early controversy about the quality of the building and its architecture, it was noted that final costs came in at over $10,000, including 100 settees, with two members of the building committee noting they were “aware that the Hall, costing $10,150, is a more expensive structure than some of our citizens would approve of, but we feel confident that a larger proportion will be proud of so magnificent a structure.”
The building was put to immediate use on Dec. 13, 1861, as a site where 89 men were mustered into service to fight in the Civil War, and another 24 men were mustered into service on Dec. 24. The men set out for Lowell, Mass. that Christmas Day to become part of the Seventeenth United States Infantry. In those early years and through the end of the century, the building was used, as one historic description says when describing modifications to the building “as would best promote the comfort of parties having occasion to use the audience room, furnish a suitable room for an armory, another for the use of public gatherings and a lock-up for the detention of criminals and disturbers of the peace.”
During this time, many community events were also held in the grand hall, including “various theater troupes, several minstrels, concerts, lectures, clubs, and Old Folks’ Concert, public dances, masquerade ball, spiritualistic meetings, the Catholic fair, and the Fire District meetings. After a fire on Jan. 12, 1890, electric lights were added (at a cost of $100 to F.E. Briggs, including the work to install electric wiring throughout the building) to replace candles and oil lamps. Three years later, water closets (toilets and a wash basin) were added “much to the convenience of those who use the hall.”
By the turn of the century, the Town Hall was used for medicine shows, and according to a history of the building, included these events one year (though the year is not identified: “war exhibitions, dances, the Middlebury College Glee Club, Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, Welsh Singers, Magic Gift Entertainment, Edison’s Kinetoscope, the Salvations Army, an armory, sons of Veterans, James Towns medicines, Good Templar’s, Box of Monkeys, horse shows, GAR, various theater troupes and, of course, town meeting.” The report added that it “seems the Town Hall was in almost constant use,” noting that one rent the town collected rent of $800 for its use in the early part of the 1900s.
By the end of WWII, the building adopted a new use, among the many others, becoming a hub as the teen-youth center, a venture that was “successful for over 20 years.” During that time, a portion of the basement was used as a recreation room, and dances were held in the main hall. By 1949, a recreational council was formed to oversee the Recreation Center and a plan was worked out between that committee and the student council of the Brandon High School for its use.
The history notes that the “installation of a modern oil heater (around 1949), additional donated furniture, Coco-cola dispensing machine and juke box made an attractive and warm place for young people to gather.” The Mother’s Club also used the Recreation Center during the morning for a nursery school. “This made possible the installation of a lavatory and toilet, new lighting fixtures, storm doors, rear partition, floor painting and sharing the fuel expense.”
Through the 1950s and 1960s, the teen center, the report states, “was still going strong with dances and social events almost every weekend… The dances were set up by the students, for the students and supervised by the students.”
The early 1970s saw a decline in the number of youths using the center and a lack of adult volunteers for various events held. The Recreation Center was closed in 1973 due to a lack of interest and support.
“Since that time,” the report says, “a number of efforts have been made to revive the Teen Center, but none has been as successful as the Center in the late 1940s through the 1960s.”
While the building was used sporadically in the 1980s — for roller skating, a Town Hall Ball, a VSO concert, several musical programs, plays, a craft show and an antique show, and efforts to have a teen center in the basement —the main hall was used mainly for storage. Through the 1990s, the expense of maintaining the building for little public use began to weigh on the selectboard and conversation turned to better uses for the land.
The threat of the building’s demise was enough to launch a 20-year revival. FOTH was formed, money raised and grants sought. Their mission was simple: “to bring the abandoned building back to life and make it a community center for one and all.”
During the next 24 years, an active group of local volunteers would raise and spend $1,061,400 to rejuvenate the Town Hall.
That effort started by the hiring of an architect to recommend what was needed at a cost of $51,532. In 2000, the work began with Vermont Protective Coatings painting the outside of the building ($12,323). In 2001, repointing of the building’s bricks and roof repairs came in at $59,000. In 2002, the front steps were replaced for $45,000.
From 2005-2007, renovations began on the interior and new marble front steps were replaced for $102,447, while a total of $364,770 was spent during this time.
A dry sprinkler system was added in 2008, as was a projector, screen, DVD player, amplifier and cabinet. New electrical improvements, furniture, a new concessions area, new chandelier lights in the main hall and repainting occurred through 2009-2012 costing another $300,000.
Repairs and more general improvements and renovations kept FOTH busy during the next several years, including new chairs, improvements to the stage and backstage areas. Finally, in 2022, the friends added a dropped ceiling in the Meeting room in the basement, a new fire suppression system, and completed painting the ceiling modeling and trim around the Main Hall, as well as repainting the entrance to the lobby upstairs — at a cost of $19,800.
Much of the costs don’t include the thousands of donated hours by the Friends of the Brandon Town Hall. Bill Mathis, son of Kathy and Bill Mathis, for instance, is credited with scraping and painting much of the town hall’s ceiling and high molding, while Kathy Mathis says she has spent hundreds of hours painting the main hall and lobby and areas downstairs, along with many others, including support from the Brandon Artists Guild and volunteers from the Brandon Town Players. In general, the work by the FOTH board and Marden is humbling.
Here’s a snippet of other recent improvements and what’s ahead according to a summary provided by FOTH:
“In addition, improvements have been made to the portico platform with bluestone to closely match the original stone, a major upgrade of the building’s electrical system to accommodate theatrical lighting and audiovisual equipment… With the generous support of the Brandon Artists Guild and Brandon Town Players, we were able to reinforce the Hall’s theatrical rigging system, install a new grand drape and onstage curtains.
“The Brandon Town Players were also instrumental in reinforcing the main stage, apron and adding two side performance areas. Because of two matching grants from the Vermont Arts Council, we were able to restore all 13 of the large windows in the upper hall and a complete restoration and enlargement of the old stage.
“The town of Brandon has taken over the responsibilities of maintenance on the building and recently installed a heating system in the upper hall, cleaned out the attic area and put in foam insulation, which has helped with the heating. Our most recent projects including replacing our old chairs with larger more comfortable chairs, and enlarging our concession area… Future projects for the main hall are a drop-down movie screen, repairing the 160-year-old floor and refurbishing the balcony.”
Getting the ceiling and main hall painted this spring was just in time to kick off what will be 22 scheduled shows and activities through the rest of the year, starting with this past Saturday’s opening show: The Doughboys Dance Band, with the next event being the silent movie, For Heaven’s Sake, on May 14.
“It’s been a long, dedicated effort by a lot of people to save this building and bring it back to use,” said Marden, who added that the Friends believe the building is not only a historic landmark but will play a critical role in the downtown’s economic revival.
“We have accomplished a lot,” Marden said, adding that with the support of the town and FOTH, “the Brandon Town Hall can be restored to serve as a strong engine of economic development and once again become the civic and cultural center of this community.”