West Tisbury Town Hall: a 139-year love affair rekindled
West Tisbury's townspeople greeted their reborn town hall on Tuesday with an emotional mix of joy, awe, and memories.
After an 11-month, $5.1-million renovation project, it appears that the artisans not only have produced an aesthetic success, but they also seem to have captured the sense of the building's 139-year history, based on comments from many of the estimated 150 residents and guests at the afternoon open house.
Town hall opens for business on Tuesday, Sept. 22, but on this Tuesday the building had the air of a gallery or a museum, complete with earth tone interior walls and off-white trim on pillars, wainscoting, windowsills, and trim.
Many of the visitors lingered for more than two hours, wandering from room to room in the elegant, carefully restored 19th-century building. An observer was reminded of T.S. Eliot's line - "In the room the women come and go, talking of Michelangelo."
The effect was not lost on renovation committee chairman Bea Phear, who mused. "I'm going to ask the selectmen to appoint a public art committee so that (town hall) is accessible to Island artists," she said. The renovated facility has more than 5,500 square feet compared with 3,200 in the original building, which was built as a schoolhouse.
The personality of the building's 139-year life certainly resonated with patrons on Tuesday. "This still has the old building smell," a passerby exclaimed joyfully to a complete stranger. "How did they manage to keep that? Renovations usually just smell new."
Whether or not the old town hall smell remains or it just seemed that way, other guests recalled their own history in the building with passion and clarity.
"I went to the second grade in this room," Karen Colaneri said, standing in the late afternoon sun on the second floor. "And so did my daughter," she said, introducing Nicole Gallant, who smiled in assent. "And look, here's her teacher, Elaine Harbberts," she said.
"In 1973, I was the first teaching assistant West Tisbury ever had. We taught here until 1976 when we moved to the new West Tisbury school," Ms. (Harbberts) Barnett recalled.
Selectman Jeffrey S. (Skipper) Manter stood quietly by a window away from the crowd. Mr. Manter has long experience in the ten-year political hurly-burly around the $5.1 million town hall renovation. But on Tuesday, the new building gave him different thoughts and memories. "I went to school from grades one through four here," he said with a gentle smile.
Summer resident Jane Newhall's memories are longer than anyone else in attendance. Ms. Newhall, 95, is a San Franciscan who spends three months here each summer, as her mother and grandmother did before her.
Ms. Newhall's grandmother was an Islander; born in the 1850s, well before the original town hall was built. "She married a man from San Francisco but always came back to the Island," she said. "This is elegant. I've been hearing about it all summer. I had to come and see for myself, Ms. Newhall said.
Former selectman John Alley lives across the street from town hall and has closely monitored the project. His likeness, along with town fathers Everett Whiting and Allen Look, now graces the second floor public meeting room, overlooking a long table recently crafted by resident Carl Sprague from an oak tree which stood in front of town hall for years. The oil portrait had hung on the ground floor of town hall before renovation. "They've done a wonderful job...except for the lights in front, and I'm told they're to be replaced," he said.
In her remarks, renovation committee chairman Bea Phear later carefully confirmed a plan to replace the outside lights.
Ms. Phear spent all of her seven-minute rededication remarks thanking townspeople and vendors. "This looks like a wonderful building and it is, thanks to the efforts of so many people who went above and beyond their duty," she said, adding "I want to thank the employees for living in trailers for the past year."
"Then there are all the rest of you," Ms. Phear said, mentioning dozens of Island residents by name and detailing the nature of the their contributions." And we are more than $300,000 under budget," she concluded to applause.
Architect John Keenan of the firm Keenan & Kenny, singled out Ms. Phear in an emotional tribute. "Hundreds of people worked on this job - for 10 years, for 10 months, for 10 minutes - but when you leave today, pick up a rock and scratch a "B" in it because Bea has been the rock on which this stands," he said.
West Tisbury Town Hall will close today at noon for big move
West Tisbury Town Hall will close today at noon and reopen Tuesday morning. Town executive secretary Jen Rand said town hall employees will be busy moving from their temporary trailer quarters into the rebuilt and expanded town hall.