Friday, October 26, 2012

Provincetown's Town House, or Original Town Hall, From 1854 to 1877

Our original Town Hall on High Pole Hill, where the Pilgrim Monument stands today.

Provincetown's current Town Hall, the large wooden building with a spired clock tower at the corner of Commercial and Ryder Streets, is the second Town Hall we've had. This building replaced our original Town Hall, or Town House, which had stood behind this spot, on High Pole Hill, where the Pilgrim Monument stands today. That first town hall was built in 1854 at a cost of just under $15,000, with $350 paid to seven local men who owned the parcels of land that made up the hill. The business of the town was conducted there, where land deeds and other town records were kept, while the upper floor served as a high school. It made a highly visible landmark which could easily be spotted from ships more than twenty miles off our shoreline. But on February 16, 1877, at 8:25 P. M.,  the building caught fire and burnt to the ground, along with many of the Town’s records and documents. The cause of the fire was never determined.
Construction on the new Town Hall was begun in September of 1885 when Universalist Minister Dr. William Henry Ryder offered to have his house, which stood on the  corner of Ryder and Commercial streets, moved around the corner to 4 Winslow Street. There you’ll find a blue and white plaque telling of the Civil War era, when the original estate is thought to have been a stop on the Underground Railroad, giving shelter to runaway slaves being smuggled to the Canadian Maritimes, though some dispute this claim.
Once the house was moved Rev. Ryder donated the land to the Town, and purchased two adjoining estates as well, to accommodate the rather grand design of Boston architect John A. Fox, and in August of 1886 the largest town hall ever built on Cape Cod was dedicated. It had cost $50,400 to build, and stood as a testament to the tremendous success of Provincetown in its early fishing and whaling days.
In the middle to late 1800s Provincetown was the richest town per capita in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, with 56 whaling ships served by 54 long wharves. There were dozens of schooners, both Grand Bankers and George’s Bankers, and a mackerel fleet as well. At times we had 700 boats in the harbor, with ships sailing in from foreign ports as well, and the town supplied them all. Even the people on the land in those days made their living from the sea, in one way or another. For example, in 1890 there were 5 blacksmith shops on Commercial Street, even though horses were scarce here. They were just able to keep up with all of the demand for chain, anchors and other metal goods needed by fishermen, whalers and all the others in this thriving little seaport village. This period in time was truly Provincetown’s Golden Era, as witnessed by the erection of this rather elaborate Town Hall.
Ostensibly for reasons of public safety, in 2008 a two-year project updating and restoring Town Hall was begun, and in November of 2010, the restoration was completed for the most part, at a cost of more than $6 million. Some argue that the true cost was well over that amount, bemoaning the expense of relocating town offices for two years, as well as charges for many extra details, like restoring the original ceiling and chandelier in the auditorium, and reconfiguring the Judge Welsh room, which now offers far fewer seats for those attending meetings of selectmen and various other town boards and committees. A great deal of space is now taken up by a new dais, which now seats the Town Manager and Board of Selectmen, or other town boards, during their meetings. These are among several "improvement" expenditures deemed frivolous or wasteful by many taxpayers.
One of the nicest features that came out of this project is the creation of space to really highlight a bit of the Town's art collection, consisting of roughly 300 works of art which have been donated, or acquired by the Town, over many years. Some of these paintings periodically rotate into the public view when works adorning the walls of Town Hall and other town offices are exchanged for different works from the collection, while others are on permanent display. There is a new space at the far end of the first floor hallway permanently showcasing one of Charles W. Hawthorne's greatest paintings, entitled Crew of the Philomena Manta, painted in 1915 and made a gift to the Town of Provincetown by the artist in 1916.
Hawthorne founded the Cape Cod School of art here in 1899, and was perhaps the greatest influence on local artists of that time. Click to see my July 10th post about Hawthorne and his art school. By 1916 Provincetown had 8 art schools with some 300 students, in great part due to the efforts of Hawthorne and some of his early protégés. Seeing the artworks displayed on Town Hall walls is one of the best reasons to take a stroll through the building. And one of the best perks of working for the town is that these folks each get to choose one of these 300 paintings to hang in their offices. Next time you're there paying your excise tax or getting your shellfishing license, take a look around you and enjoy some of this wonderful art.

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