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New Life For Old Town Hall in Orford

  • The former Town Hall in Orfordville was recently named to the New Hampshire State Register of Historic Places. Photograph courtesy of  Orford Historical Society.

    The former Town Hall in Orfordville was recently named to the New Hampshire State Register of Historic Places. Photograph courtesy of Orford Historical Society.

  • This postcard published by the Ladies' Aid Society shows Orfordville around 1912. The white building on the left is Town Hall. Next to it is a factory that made coffins. The former one-room schoolhouse, by then the Orford Free Library, is at the far right.  Image courtesy of Arthur Pease.

    This postcard published by the Ladies' Aid Society shows Orfordville around 1912. The white building on the left is Town Hall. Next to it is a factory that made coffins. The former one-room schoolhouse, by then the Orford Free Library, is at the far right. Image courtesy of Arthur Pease.

  • The former Town Hall in Orfordville was recently named to the New Hampshire State Register of Historic Places. Photograph courtesy of  Orford Historical Society.
  • This postcard published by the Ladies' Aid Society shows Orfordville around 1912. The white building on the left is Town Hall. Next to it is a factory that made coffins. The former one-room schoolhouse, by then the Orford Free Library, is at the far right.  Image courtesy of Arthur Pease.

Orford — As beloved and elegant as they often are, historic buildings like Orford’s old Town Hall can create dilemmas for towns trying to preserve their pasts without blowing their budgets. Orford has wrestled off and on for years with the question of what to do with the 19th-century hall, which served as its only government building for more than a century before falling into disuse in 1988. This year, at Town Meeting, the question was settled. Again.

The white, single-story building on Route 25A in Orfordville had been part of the town since 1859, when it was built. But in 1996, Town Meeting voters opted to sell the then-rundown structure.

“Orford kind of looks at things practically,” said Paul Goundrey, who served on the Selectboard at the time. “They felt (that) there really wasn’t a use for it … and in order to make it useful, it would have cost money at that time that the town didn’t want to put into it.”

But voters couldn’t let go completely and ended up amending the article to give right of first refusal to the town. John Matyka bought the building, which was home to his antiques shop for 18 years.

Matyka, who runs Town Hall Antiques and Country Store with his wife, Marie, understands the hall’s allure.

“When I first bought that building, I don’t think anyone else wanted it,” he said.

Dozens of window panes were broken, the furnace needed replacing and blue plastic tarps covered a big hole in the roof. Nonetheless, it spoke to him.

“There was something about that building, just a feeling I had instantly of it’s something special,” he said. “You just knew you had to be there.”

Recently, when Matyka decided to sell it, Orford once again found itself weighing the costs and benefits of ownership. At Town Meeting this year, voters approved an article that tried to address both concerns.

Article 9 allows the town to buy the building with money raised by the Orford Historical Society. The town will lease the building to the historical society for $1 a year and share the maintenance responsibilities; Orford will take care of the exterior, and the historical society will maintain the inside and pay the utilities.

The new Town Hall Heritage Center will house the historical society’s collections and serve as a public meeting space.

Goundrey said he’s glad the building is “kind of coming back to the town.”

“It will be a great spot to have it open for the public” and also provide a needed place for the historical society to work on its collection, he said. “The historical society over the years has added to the town, not just maintaining artifacts, but also putting on programs a couple times a year that have always been well attended.”

And the way it’s being financed “fits into that practicality of Orford.”

“Yeah, it’s going to come back to the town, more or less, but we’re not going to pay for it,” he said, laughing.

It recently became the first structure in town to be placed on the state Register of Historic Places, said Carl Schmidt, president of the historical society. The historical society and will mark the occasion with a short ceremony on Thursday at 11:30 a.m. at the old Town Hall.

In addition to recognizing the its historical significance, being listed on the register will make the hall eligible for state grants and alternative building code requirements, said Schmidt, who also serves on the state Historical Resources Council, which reviews nominations for the historic register.

A Commercial Center

The tiny village of Orfordville might seem like a strange spot for a town hall, but when it was built, the choice made sense. “It was by far, I think, the most important commercial center in the town for 100 years or so,” Schmidt said.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Orfordville was a bustling light manufacturing center, thanks in part to water power from Jacobs Brook, the town’s largest tributary into the Connecticut River, he said in an email. It was home to gristmill, a sawmill, a potash works, tannery, tin shop and shoemaker, and factories there made furniture, bobbins, bedsprings, mattresses and starch.

The Town House, as it was originally called, was used for events that drew large crowds, such as traveling shows, local theater productions, benefit suppers and Town Meeting. With its large open area, stage and balcony, it also served as an auditorium for school pageants and graduations.

Orfordville natives such as Helen Marsh remember those days.

When Marsh looks back on her childhood, she remembers browsing rummage sales, shopping at the general store and pining for the return of the “summer people.”

“Not much happened,” Marsh said, laughing. But what did happen centered on Town Hall.

On Memorial Day, she and her classmates sang there, usually tunes that were popular during the Civil War. She also watched plays there in the 1940s, country western shows that drew “quite a crowd.”

“They’d sing and that sort of thing,” she said. “It was quite the event.”

Marsh, who now lives in Fairlee, said she’s always supported saving the building.

“I would hate to see that go because I do think there’s a use for it,” she said. “I think the town needs a place for gathering. … It would be nice to have a community center.”

The building has come a long way since Matyka bought it. An antiques dealer and taxidermist, he initially wanted the hall for storage space. Then, a business happened.

“As I started to put in antiques, people started to come in and buy things,” he said.

Since 1996, the Matykas have replaced the ceiling and heating system, repaired windows, installed a new roof, and built a parking lot, among other repairs, to the tune of about $40,000.

“We wanted it to look really nice,” Matyka said. His wife’s sewing business occupies the balcony area, and a few years ago, to counteract the economic downturn, they added sundries, such as coffee, candles, sodas and sweets.

Their guest books contain messages from people all over the United States and as far away as China, Germany and Brazil.

“Like stepping back in time,” a visitor from Hopkinton, N.H., wrote in April.

Matyka, 64, says he’s “getting up in age” and plans to focus on his taxidermy business after selling the hall.

“It’s given us a living for the past 15 years,” he said. “Even now that I’m selling it, I still have feelings for the building.”

Except for a handicap ramp, “it remains pretty much as it looked, at least from 1915, Orford’s sesquicentennial … if not from 1859,” Schmidt said.

Looking ahead, Schmidt envisions all sorts of activity in the hall — people researching their family histories, visits from local schools, meetings and displays.

“We want it to be a lively, active place,” Schmidt said. “We’d like to make sure that, as much as we can, we recapture some of the many uses that the building had in the past.”

It’s not yet clear what the building will cost.

“That remains to be done when we are at a point when are confident about the fundraising,” Schmidt said. The historical society hopes to raise $150,000 in an upcoming capital campaign, to cover the anticipated price of the building, initial operating costs, and “moving-in expenses,” including a new handicap ramp, as the current one is too steep. In the future, they may bring running water to the hall for the first time.

An inspection last fall by a Rutland firm “came out very well,” he said. “They basically said for a building of its age, it’s really in very good condition.”

The heritage center could open as early as 2015, when the town will celebrate its 250th anniversary, Schmidt said. “It would be a nice present from the town to itself.”

Aimee Caruso can be reached at acaruso@vnews.com or 603-727-3210.