Remaking history at Sandwich Town Hall

By George Brennan
March 25, 2010

SANDWICH  When voters approved the restoration of the venerable 1834 town hall, there was fear that costs might skyrocket because of the building’s age. But with the home-stretch of the year-long project in sight, architects and builders say the renovation remains on time, on budget and the only surprises have been historical finds.

The most recent discovery, said Ryan Foster, an architect with the McGinley Kaslow & Associates, is that the entrance doors are originals. In removing panels on the doors for the restoration, North Bennet Street School of Carpentry found the signature of Solomon G. Howland and 1834 written in chalk. “The panels were protecting the signature,” Foster said.

Howland is the son of Ellis Howland, who built the town hall and is from a family of builders responsible for some historic homes in the village, Jonathan Shaw, a local historian who serves on the building committee, said.

The signature spans about 6 feet on the large wooden doors. “That for me evokes the pride he had in building them,” Shaw said.

Town employees also found an old ship’s lantern when they were packing up to move out. That lantern is being restored and will be featured in the entryway, said Wendall Kaslow, the project’s principal architect.

On a tour of the building Tuesday, town leaders and a couple of visitors got a peek inside the renovation project, which is on budget and time, Kaslow said.

The windows are still out and two signature columns have been removed, but the architect and contractor say the $3.1 million project should be done by July 31.

Once again, the building will house the town manager, town accountant and town treasurer’s offices, which are temporarily located at Oak Crest Cove. The first-floor offices have been framed and are ready for finish work. On the second floor, the meeting room that’s been closed to the public and relegated to a glorified closet since public access laws went into effect, is being restored. Work is under way to refinish the maple floor and provide access to the room with an elevator. The room, which spans the length of the building, served as the location of town meetings for more than 100 years, Shaw said.
The town hall, possibly the first in the state, was built within a year of a Massachusetts law that emphasized the separation of church and state, Shaw said.

Meanwhile, the town hopes to use contingency funds to restore stencil work on the auditorium ceiling, Frank Pannorfi, a former selectman and advocate for the project, said. Andrew Ladygo, a renowned preservationist who has worked on historic buildings including the Massachusetts Statehouse, is chipping away paint on the ceiling in a pain-staking process to reveal the pattern.

But it was perhaps the basement that most impressed visitors. What was once a crawl space is now supported by concrete pillars and a more traditional basement — albeit one that requires walking hunched over. “It was a wet, muddy mess down here,” assistant Town Manager Doug Lapp said. Chris Raye, the project’s general contractor Builders Systems Inc., said workers had to remove fill from the basement one 5-gallon bucket at a time. “It was a nightmare excavating 3 to 4 feet of mud,” he said.

All in all, though, Raye said the project has thrown few curve balls. David and Suzanne Goehringer, two Sandwich residents who were invited guests for the tour, said they were impressed by the work paid for by community preservation funds.

“The restoration is amazing,” David Goehringer said. “I drive by two or three times a day and I had no idea what was happening inside.”