THE OLD TOWN HALL
By Susan Goodrich Motycka
Early New England settlements usually had Congregational meeting houses that served as both the church and the place where town business was conducted. In Connecticut and Massachusetts, local tax revenue frequently helped pay to operate and maintain a town’s meetinghouse. The adoption of the United States Constitution with its provision that “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion” left this unchanged.
By the early 1800s the political climate of the State was changing. Congregational clergy were no longer the dominant power. Baptists, Methodists, and Episcopalians were among the groups that supported the Constitutional Convention of 1818. That convention resulted in a new state constitution, which required the separation of church and state. Church meetinghouses were no longer a town facility, so Glastonbury had no official place for town meetings and elections.
For nearly 20 years town business in Glastonbury continued as usual. The Town Clerk’s home was his office. Court cases were heard in the Judge’s home. Town boards met in local taverns, and town meetings and elections were held in various churches and schools.
At a special town meeting on April 17, 1837, a committee was appointed to consider buying or building a Town House. Existing buildings were soon rejected. According to the diary of Deacon Joseph Wright, the location was extremely controversial. On January 29, 1838, he wrote: “A great interest has been felt about building a Town House and several meetings have been had. The Electors met this day again to settle the place where they would locate a Town House. The lower end people of South Glastenbury convinced that they could not carry the vote to bring the town house to S. Glastenbury, motioned to have a town house built at Buck’s Corner in Wassuck-but this failed and the vote being taken to place it on the Green… it was determined in the affirmative by between 40 or 50 votes. The selectmen were empowered to put up a building at a cost not exceeding 1,600 dollars.”
According to town records, the Selectmen were authorized to lay a tax “sufficient to defray the expense of the town house, provided that the money expected from the General Government is not received in time or is not sufficient, if received.” It is not known whether the government subsidy was ever received.
In spite of the earlier decision, opponents attending the annual Town Meeting on October 1, 1838 proposed to rescind the vote authorizing the Town House. This was defeated, but continuing opposition to the site was a primary cause of the two-year delay in completing the building.
Parley Bidwell who, in 1828, built the Methodist Church on High Street in South Glastonbury was selected as the builder. The red brick building, similar in appearance to the church (now the South Glastonbury Library) was completed in the summer of 1840. According to legend the brick used for the structure came from South America as ballast on a sailing vessel. (This is doubtful because of the amount of brick required and the fact that there were several brickyards in the area.)
On October 5, 1840, Wright wrote: “Town meeting. There was a division in the loco foco ranks on account of the Town House, which was built this summer. The S. Glastenbury locos being averse to building on the ‘Green’ though the town had voted two years ago to place it there. The selectmen determined to build it this summer though it was believed that 3/4 of the people would be opposed to it on account of the pressure of the times…” (The Loco Focos were a forerunner of today’s Democrats.) Wright reported that the situation was finally resolved on October 18, 1841, when the Town Meeting voted to accept the Town House.
The new Town House became the official polling place. It served as the site of the town court. Town meetings were held there until 1923, when they moved to the large auditorium in the new high school. The building had no space for town records, so those continued to be kept in the Town Clerk’s home until 1881, when a Records Building was constructed.
Glastonbury’s Town House achieved nationwide notoriety in 1874 when Julia and Abby Smith were denied permission to speak at electors’ meeting. Seizing the opportunity, Abby climbed on a wagon in front of the Town Hall and gave a speech protesting the unfair taxation of women. The sisters refused to pay their taxes unless they were given the right to vote. A reporter writing about this on-going battle described the Town Hall as “a building quite after the conventional style for such an institution in old-fashioned Connecticut towns, cheerless and unkempt.”
As the years passed, the Town Hall, as it became known, was modernized. In 1914 candles were replaced by electric lights. In 1918 coal replaced wood as fuel for heating. The only thing not done was adding space.
By the late 1920s the town was in need of office space. Inadequate heating in Town Hall forced the court to relocate “in order that necessary civilities may be extended to the public.” A solution was found in 1930 when students from the 2nd District School transferred to the new Academy Elementary School. Voters agreed that the vacated school building (2252 Main Street) could be adapted for use as a Town Hall.
The town continued to maintain the Old Town Hall for public use. In the 1940s the exterior was repaired and a new roof installed. In 1950 an addition on the rear provided space for a small kitchen and a bathroom. The building was rewired and a new heating system was installed. This enabled the town to rent the building for use as a private kindergarten. In 1959 the town established a public kindergarten and the private one closed. At that time, the town voted to lease the building for 99 years to the Historical Society of Glastonbury.
When the Society moved into the building it consisted of one large room. Because of the high ceiling, local architect Norris Prentice was able to create additional space for storage and a library by designing a balcony, supported by four round columns. Members donated chandeliers that serve to balance the height in the exhibition area. The old Town House on the Green continues to serve as a town museum, preserving records and artifacts relating to Glastonbury history. Visitors are welcome from 9 A.M. to 4 P.M. on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays and, on the third Sunday of the month from 1 to 4 P.M.