There are few things I like better than exploring local history and for this blog ( and the newspapers I edit) I'm going to present a few first-person expeditions into history that is staring us in the face that we pass by almost every day.
CHICOPEE – I was thankful I had lost a little weight as I quickly concluded that if I were just a bit wider I wouldn’t make it up the narrow staircase that runs along the wall of the clock tower in Chicopee City Hall.
Mayoral Aide Scott Szczebak suggested that he and I ask City Messenger Earl Desrochers to give us a tour of City Hall that would reveal a bit of its history. Thanks Scott.
When built in 1871, Chicopee City Hall was designed as a multi-use building – it was the home of the court, the police and the jail as well as various city departments.
The building was so heavily used that in 1929 the annex was built to allow for necessary expansion.
The dedication date is noted in the two white marble and metal plaques that are on both sides of the hall’s Front Street entrance. If you’ve passed by them without looking, these honor the city’s men who lost their lives in the Civil War, still a conflict at the top of people’s minds in 1871.
It was also a social center of the community with its auditorium the site for functions such as dances. It was designed to seat 900 people.
We started our tour from the bottom and worked our way up. Desrochers showed us how his office in the basement was in the location of the former police station. There was a firing range in which the police sharpened their skills that was in use until the 1970s and remains of the lock-up with iron bars still adorning a bricked up window.
The auditorium was the next stop. The large room with two balcony areas hasn’t been used for about eight or nine years, Desrochers said. Part of the problem is the cost of keeping the areas either warm or cool, but a more prominent challenge is the condition of the plaster moldings at the top of the walls.
Desrochers picked up a chunk of plaster that had fallen. It was quite heavy and there is a concern about the safety of the public in the room. There has been work started in restoring some of the plaster especially around the circular stained glass window featuring an eagle on the wall facing Front Street. A large artificial Christmas wreath had been installed there over the window several years ago but the building could not support the the additional weight and nearly tore the window out, he said.
Mayor Michael Bissonnette has told this reporter in the past that he would like to see the auditorium converted into a television studio that could be used as the site of Aldermanic and School Committee meetings, among other uses.
It is said that author Charles Dickens even made a stop in one of his American tours speaking at the auditorium. It’s a great story, but untrue as Dickens died in 1870.
Desrochers explained the current aldermanic chambers were originally the city’s courtrooms.
Desrochers then asked with a smile if we were ready for the clock tower. The tower is 147 feet tall and was patterned after the Palazzo Vecchio, the town hall of Florence, Italy. The tower has three clock faces that were installed in 1888 and is topped with an eagle weathervane that was made across the street at the former Ames Manufacturing Company. Its wingspan is seven feet.
The staircase is in pretty good condition, although quite narrow and frankly it felt a bit like mountain climbing at times. After a few minutes worth of exertion we poked our heads through the opening on the floor of the clock mechanism.
Now electrically powered, the clock was ticking away on two of its three faces – the third of which had a broken rod between the clock’s hands and its workings. In one corner of the small room – the three of us barely fit along with the clock mechanism – was an open wooden shaft that Desrochers said was for the pulley and weight system that originally powered the clock.
On two walls were souvenirs of the past – names of people who had made the trek of the stairs dating back to the 1930s. Desrochers guessed these were folks who had attended a dance or other social function at the auditorium and sneaked up the stairs to the clock room. Unlike today’s graffiti there were no obscenities – just names and years written primarily in chalk.
There was just one place to go and that was the bell chamber above us. I was game for the task until I saw the ladder. It was perched on a narrow sliver of flooring that had some discomforting give to it. I noticed that the first rung of the clearly hand-made wooden ladder was snapped.
This way to the bell
Doing some quick mental math – how far would an overweight reporter fall when the old wooden ladder he was on gave way – I decided that discretion was indeed the better part of valor.
But Scott came to the rescue, as he knew that Systems Engineer Michael Lareau had ascended into the bell chamber and had photos he took from the small balcony area that is on one side of the tower.
Lareau shared both his experiences – the view was great but he was initially unsure of the balcony structural integrity – and his photos.
The next time you pass by City Hall take a moment to consider what that build could say if it could talk of the changes it has witnessed in the community it serves.
© 2008 by Gordon Michael Dobbs