Our Story: The Way it Was
Our town has a very rich history. Some of our past is well-known to many of us, but some is completely unknown to most of us. Every month in this space, your town Historian and other History Room researchers will showcase an important personality, landmark, or event from Hamden's past. We hope this feature will inspire our website visitors to know more about people, places, and events that have shaped our town since 1786.
In The History of Hamden Connecticut (1943), Rachel Hartley wrote that, beginning in 1788, Hamden town meetings were held at various times in private homes of Joseph Pardee, Theophilus Goodyear, Jared Cooper and Samuel Atwater. First consideration given to the construction of a permanent town hall was at an 1805 meeting, "when the citizens voted 'to take into consideration whether we will Remove our town meeting or Build a town House or Remain as we are, at the next adjourned town meeting.'" They decided to continue meeting in private homes.
In 1835, electors met at Jesse Goodyear's tavern, located where the present town hall stands today, and decided to "hold electors' meetings at the Centerville House (the name Jesse Goodyear used for his tavern) and remove the 'town chest' [the town records] to Uriah Foote's" home, which, from the description given in Hartley's book was likely on the south side of Dixwell Avenue, about where the Episcopal church stands today.
Serious efforts to acquire a permanent town hall began as early as 1869. Finally, after forty electors signed a petition, the January 2, 1888 town meeting voted favorably. The town purchased the old Centerville House site at Whitney and Dixwell from its present owner, William Ives, for $1,300. D.R. Brown was the architect, who used an original plan drawn up by William P. Blake. According to Mrs. Hartley's book, "It called for a large room, 100 by 50 feet, for meetings, desired offices and an entrance hall. A room on the upper floor, 50 by 30 feet, was rented to Day Spring Masonic Lodge for $125 a year. The basement, where the cells for prisoners were located, measured 60 by 32 feet."
Incredibly, no provisions were made for "waterworks or plumbing." Planners believed adequate water was available from "excellent wells" on the site and a cistern could always be built to collect rain water. The cost for the new town hall was $12,872.88 ($341,667.92 in 2018).
The above photo, courtesy of Gilbert Spencer, perhaps the earliest known photo of the town hall, appears to have been taken within a decade after its construction. The workmen digging a trench parallel with the front of the building are not digging a water main, as "city water" did not show up in Centerville until well into the 20th century. There appears to be some sort of utility pole, but no wires are attached.
This is the only known full side view of the south side of the 1888 town hall. If a liberal estimate of 10-feet per story were assigned to the heights the first and second floors of the main building, then it would appear the entire length of the rear extension is approximately 70 to 75 feet. The gabled building seen in the background on the east side of Whitney Avenue may be the same 2-1/2 story wood frame building that still stands today diagonally opposite the town hall fire station.
This photo from the estate of G. Harold Welch, possibly taken by his father, was dated 1902. Note the wires that are now visible on the utility pole in front of the town hall. The upper wire probably provides electric power to the trolley cars, the lower wire is probably from the New Haven telephone exchange. Hamden did not have its own telephone exchange until 1916.
These two photos (above and below) are both pre-1912, by which time the New Haven Water Co. had constructed at water trough in the middle of Dixwell Avenue on the west side of Whitney Avenue. The tall and somewhat top-heavy steeple on Grace Episcopal Church blew over in a 1915 wind storm. It was replaced in 1921 with the smaller dome-like steeple that remains on the church to this day.
Dixwell Avenue looking west from Whitney Avenue. Until the 1920s, Dixwell Avenue proceeded straight to Evergreen Avenue, then doglegged south on what is now Evergreen, then continued west again along its present route.
This nicely color-tinted postcard, taken from an actual photograph, is obviously mis-labeled.
From the 1911 Town of Hamden Annual Report of the Selectmen: "At the Town Hall, new curtains have replaced the old ones which had become so badly worn and torn as to become a disgrace. Water has also been brought in from the New Haven Water Company's pipe lines and an appropriation has been asked for to enable us to install the long-needed toilets. We believe we are safe in saying this is something that will be appreciated."
The 1911 report continued, "Under an agreement with the New Haven Water Company, it is proposed to establish a watering trough on the corner of Dixwell Avenue near the Town Hall (the Water Company to supply the water free) the stream at the Web Shop to be fenced in to prevent watering animals and driving through at that place." The trough was constructed and remained at the corner of Dixwell and Whitney until 1937, when the two thoroughfares were repaved in concrete.
"At the Town Hall," noted the 1912 town report, "the front lawn has been cut down to a grade with the walk and thickly spread with good loam and seeded, thus making a much nicer appearance." Also noted was that "inside toilets have been installed." Welcome to the 20th century!
The building with the cupola just north of the town hall was the meeting hall and quarters for the Centerville Volunteer Fire Co., organized in 1907. When plans were being drawn for Hamden's more massive Memorial Town Hall, which was dedicated in February 1925, the town needed to acquire the adjacent property that was owned and occupied by the fire company. So, a meeting room and space for fire apparatus were provided to the Centerville volunteers in the new town hall. A fire station remains in the present town hall to this day.
In the 1917 town report, the value of the town hall and its fixtures were valued at $25,000 ($531,301.72 in 2018).
When the United States entered World War I a century ago, the town erected an honor roll on the lawn of the town hall, listing all of the Hamden residents who were then serving in the armed forces.
The postcard at left was sold in almost every town retail establishment. The present town historian recalls they were still being sold for a dime forty years later at Charlie Crook's Centerville Drug Store at Whitney and Dixwell in the late 1950s.
In the 1918 town report, the Selectmen reported, "Many of our young men have been called to the colors, and to the great credit of our town it can be said that Hamden has responded generously, in fact gone over the top there (somewhere in France).
"The Honor Roll erected at the Town Hall has received many compliments for its beautiful design. Hamden War Bureau has become a legally recognized organization and has done excellent work towards conducting the war activities of the town."
Although the building was only thirty years old at the time, the Selectmen also reported, "The Town Hall is badly in need of repairs. The cellar walls having settled causing several splits in the building." It continued, "electricity has been carried to the Masonic Room, making it much more comfortable apartment than heretofor.(sic)"
The 1915 town report contained an ominous observation from the Selectmen, "We again call your attention to the fact that the north foundation wall of the Town Hall has settled several inches, which has badly rent the brick work up the sides and will require quite a large expenditure to make the necessary repairs."
The back of the 1918 Honor Roll can be seen in this three-quarter view of the north and east sides of the town hall. The cross atop the new steeple on Grace Episcopal church is seen rising above the peak of the roof of the rear extension of the town hall, which means that this photo was taken no earlier than 1921.
The 1911-12 water trough is shown straddling Dixwell Avenue where it meets Whitney on the west side. One of Hamden's oldest citizen's, Bill Bossoli (age 99 in 2018), recalled a fatal car accident when a driver crashed into the trough in the 1920s.
The trolley tracks provided public transportation from New Haven all the way to Waterbury via Whitney Avenue. However, despite repeated requests from Hamden's selectmen, the Connecticut Company refused to extend the Dixwell Avenue line from its Benham Street terminus to the town hall, thus requiring Highwood, Pine Rock and Hamden Plains residents to travel into New Haven and then transfer to the Whitney Avenue line in order to travel to Centerville and points north.
In 1922, the Selectmen's report got even more ominous and urgent, "Again we call your attention to the conditions at the Town Hall, unsafe condition of the west end and lack of room. The town has certainly outgrown this structure and it is imperative that it be remodelled (sic) or rebuilt at the earliest possible moment."
In 1923, the voters of the town decided to build a new town hall, dedicated to Hamden's servicemen who lost their lives in defense of human liberty in the recent World War and in previous (and future) conflicts. That year, Hamden's Selectmen reported, "The contractor is making splendid progress on the new Memorial Town Hall. Everyone realizes the importance of completing this building at the earliest possible moment." (Note the repetition of that final phrase from the 1922 report.)
"We believe the design and utility of this building is such that it will meet with the approval of the people in Hamden and will undoubtedly serve our people during the life of the youngest inhabitant of today" Indeed, it has.
Hamden's old town hall, built in 1888, was torn down in 1923 after only 35 years of service to the town. The above photo was taken during the 1924 cornerstone laying for Memorial Town Hall, with much of the construction on the new building having already taken place.
Centerville Firehouse (c. 1908) The cupola was added later