Jamie H. Eves

Windham Town Hall: From Courthouse to Ballroom

   Although government is one of the principal sectors of the postindustrial economy, government buildings first came to Willimantic during the industrial era. During the earliest stages of industrialization (1822-77), when government in Willimantic was small, no special buildings were set aside strictly for government use. Instead, government offices, functions, and meeting rooms were located in a series of small, temporary spaces. Until 1909, for example, federal post offices operated out of general stores. As for local government, until 1833 Willimantic was only a neighborhood in the town of Windham and had no government of its own. But that year the state legislature granted Willimantic borough status, a change that necessitated establishing a borough government. Still, for  the next 40 years borough officials continued to meet in various temporary locations: churches, mills, dance halls, and commercial buildings. Then, in 1879, at the beginning of the Gilded Age, Whiting Hayden, a prominent Willimantic mill owner and banker, acted to create more permanent headquarters. (6)

   By 1877 a local elite of mill owners, mill mangers, and prosperous merchants had emerged in Willimantic. Like Hayden, they were almost always men, usually Yankees, mostly of middle-class origins, and generally well educated. Frequently, they also had important business interests or connections in Hartford, Providence, New Haven, New York, Brooklyn, Boston, or other large commercial cities. Wealthy, successful, and powerful, this elite constructed buildings and other spaces that reflected their own sense of self-importance: structures that were both visually impressive and “built to last.”

   Born in 1808 in Warwick, MA, Hayden (left) came from the expanding Yankee middle class that had grown up with the industrial revolution. He advanced upward through a series of industrial and commercial jobs: clerk for the Blackstone Canal, supervisor of a cotton mill in Rhode Island, co-owner of a small Rhode Island textile mill, western land speculator, manager of two different cotton mills in Willimantic, and finally owner of the Smithville Manufacturing Company, Willimantic’s third-largest cotton mill. He was also a partner in a Willimantic bank, a state legislator, and the owner of an elegant mansion on the lower slopes of Hosmer Mountain. He died in 1886, one of Willimantic’s leaders. Two city streets (Whiting Street and Hayden Street) were named for him. (7)

   Hoping to make Willimantic the co-county seat of Windham County, Hayden joined with other local leaders to plan a suitable county courthouse. In 1879, he built the Hayden block (right), an imposing two-story brick-and-marble building on Main Street. The first floor held shops and stores, but the second floor was modeled into borough offices, a county law library, and a courtroom. The state agreed to split court sessions between Willimantic and Brooklyn, the other co-county seat. But when Hayden’s heirs raised the rent after his death, borough and county officials moved out of the building and into a series of temporary quarters elsewhere in the city. (8)

   In 1893, the Connecticut legislature upgraded Willimantic from a borough to a city (although officially it remained part of the town of Windham), and local leaders resurrected the idea of a permanent city hall and county courthouse. Rather than renting space in a commercial block, however, leaders now wanted to erect an impressive public building that would be owned by the city, a visible symbol of Willimantic’s growth, prosperity, and influence, and of the growing importance of government. That year a committee of fourteen — all men, all Yankees, and all business leaders — was chosen to spearhead the effort. They included William N. Potter (left), the chairman, a member of the board of selectmen and successful merchant; John Hickey, a grocer and banker; George E. Stiles, a grocer and second generation Main Street merchant; T. C. Chandler, the manager of the Windham Cotton Manufacturing Company; John T. Baker, who owned a drug store, an art supply store, and a roofing business; Frank M. Wilson, a pharmacist and past President of the Connecticut Pharmaceutical Association; and Seth Hooker, who owned a large hotel. (9)

   Potter, who owned a shoe store, was typical of the group. For almost a quarter century, he had sold and repaired boots, shoes, and rubber goods. He had been born in Willimantic and, except for six years, had spent his entire life there. At the time he chaired the building committee for the new courthouse, he was into his second term as town selectman. Potter was extremely proud of his business, which he had built from the bottom up. He had changed locations several times, each time expanding his inventory and moving into more spacious quarters. By the 1890s, he occupied two floors of a commercial block on Union Street and had the largest sales volume of any shoe store in the city. (10)

   The building committee soon encountered problems. Conservatives opposed the courthouse as a needless extravagance and waste of taxpayers’ money. The Willimantic Linen Company, the city’s largest mill, objected to building the courthouse downtown, at the corner of Main and Union, because it feared the structure would block its own future expansion plans. Finally, a nationwide recession had made many local businesspeople skittish about big new projects, especially after Willimantic’s Natchaug Silk Mill and Dime Savings Bank collapsed and Oliver Risley, the chief cashier of the city’s First National Bank, was discovered to have embezzled money to cover his own investment losses. (11)

   But the committee forged ahead nevertheless. They chose a site at the corner of Main and High streets, safely distant from the Linen Company’s mills. They hired an architect, Warren Richard Briggs of Bridgeport, CT; chose a local contractor, Jeremiah O’Sullivan; and authorized $60,000 in building expenses. Opponents grumbled that the Linen Company had abused its economic muscle to dictate the site. When the Company’s massive Mill No. 2 caught fire in June, 1895, and firefighters discovered oil-soaked lumber stacked against the walls and skeins of thread doused with gasoline, many suspected retaliation. (12)

   The building committee, architect, and contractor wanted the new courthouse (left) to be a Gilded Age showpiece and towering symbol of Willimantic’s industrial primacy. They added an ornate bell tower (and even got local curmudgeon James Hayden, Whiting’s querulous white-bearded son, to pay for the bell), although some people thought the tower’s phallic shape (below) was a bit too … suggestive. Famed New England sculptor Daniel Chester French designed two giant bronze bullfrog statues, although the committee eventually nixed them as too expensive. But the building was elegant and imposing, nonetheless. According to historian Thomas R. Beardsley, “The new town hall was built of 1.25 million bricks. The exterior trimming was constructed from Philadelphia pressed brick. The 14 wide granite steps led to an entrance porch 40 x 10 [feet] with a granolytic floor, a combination of powdered granite and Portland cement. The entrance hall had paneled ash ceilings and a floor constructed from Munson granite, and the building interior was finished in cypress paneling. The doors were also cypress, and 152 windows lit the interior. The first story sandstone came from Portland, Connecticut, and the granite from Munson, Mass. The building craftsmen came from Meriden (roof), Waterbury (copper), Willimantic (carpentry by Hillhouse & Taylor and plumbing by Moriarty and Rafferty), New Haven (ironwork), and Norwich (electricity).” The building was completed in 1896. (13)

   Some of Briggs’s original sketches for the Windham Court House are preserved at the Windham Textile and History Museum, and they reveal that the building was intended as a multi-purpose structure. The first floor held town offices and vaults, office space for the Grand Army of the Republic (an organization of Civil War veterans), and — in the rear, with its own entrance — the city’s public library (below). The second floor held city and county offices and a public auditorium with a band-shell-type stage and balcony seating. The third floor had a spacious courtroom (to be used by both county and city courts), a county law library, and a meeting room for the city council. The floor of the courtroom was packed with sand and wool, to deaden sound. There was also a lockup and space for the city police. (14) 

   As time passed, however, the Windham Court House became less a all-purpose building and more of a town hall. This was partly because town government expanded, especially after 1960, and needed more space. But it was also because many of the building’s other functions were either discontinued or relocated. First, the GAR gave up its space; the organization had declined as Civil War veterans aged, holding its last national encampment in 1949. Second, in 1960, Connecticut abolished county government and, a few years later, relocated the superior court and law library to a new, state-owned courthouse on Valley Street. Third, in 1968, Willimantic built a new, roomier public library on Main Street. Fourth, the city police relocated into a larger facility on the corner of Bank and Meadow streets. Fifth, at some point, the auditorium was closed and converted into storage space, probably about the same time as the first high school auditorium was built. Sixth, Willimantic city government was dissolved in 1983, and the city reabsorbed back into the town of Windham. With the GAR gone, the public library moved, county government abolished, the superior court relocated, a new police station, and city government dissolved, the Windham Court House now housed only town government. Renovation plans from 1998 reveal that officials even considered cutting up much of the former auditorium and courtrooms into municipal offices. (15)

   In 2009, however, the town of Windham backtracked. It restored the old auditorium. As was the case with building the Windham Court House in 1896, the restorations were controversial. Some saw the auditorium simply as space for town meetings and government hearings. Others hoped that it might be used as a historic ballroom that would attract events and promote tourism. What will the future hold?