The grandeur of Norwich’s French Second Empire-style Town Hall, built between 1870 and 1873, is a constant reminder of the city’s golden age and its prominent place in history.
Located between Union Street and Broadway, this extravagant five-story brick building features ornate trim, skylights and a slate mansard roof with a corner tower topped by a clock, belfry and finial in bulb. It also features elaborate metal railings and cast iron staircases that were state of the art at the time, said City Clerk Betsy Barrett.
Philadelphia bricks and decorative iron from New York’s Aetna Ironworks were transported by ship to the Norwich waterfront, she said, which was very active at the time.
From there, the supplies were transported to the site by horse and buggy.
âYou are a little in awe of looking around everyday to see the splendor of what is here and how it happened,â Barrett said. âRemember, no cranes, no bucket loaders. It was ropes, planks, and a bucket to lift the brick.
After the old wooden town hall at the corner of Church and Court streets was destroyed by fire in April 1865, Norwich City historian Dale Plummer said the new structure was built in its current location. The construction cost $ 324,732, according to the book “Victorian Norwich” by author and former Norwich Mayor Arthur Lester Lathrop.
Initially, Norwich Town Hall housed many courts, offices, police departments and prison cells.
âThe first fatality in service was Lt. William Gordon,â Barrett said.
He died after being repeatedly hit with a spittoon (spittoon), she said, during a “violent struggle with a prisoner who was trying to escape from the prison cell.”
Gordon died on July 7, 1881. The Norwich Police Department moved to Union Street in 1885, Barrett said, then to its present location in 1977 at 70 Thames St.
About a year and a half ago, a lawyer walked into town hall and deposited a spittoon which he said had been on an evidentiary record for many years, said Jacquie Barbarossa, executive assistant to the director of the city of Norwich, John L. Salomone. He told her, “Rumor has it that it was confiscated, that someone threw it at someone.”
The round, heavy object is now in the display case with the scale, weights, and measures (which were used to tax individuals purchasing wheat, flour, and other foods and commodities). The only question: is he old enough to be the object that killed Lieutenant Gordon?
Around 1909, an addition designed by Cudworth & Woodworth was added to the rear of Town Hall. In 1993, a $ 7 million renovation project was completed and repairs to the windows and the clock tower were made in 1995.
Today, the building houses city and state offices, a probate court, and the probation department. The old Superior Court on the third floor is used for meetings and swearing-in ceremonies.
Two-thirds of the building is owned by Norwich and the other third by the state.
The inner majesty of Norwich Town Hall features high ceilings, elaborate pressed metal ceilings and walls, plaster ceiling medallions, 9 foot doors, original hardware, nine vaults, wooden floors in yellow pine and black walnut wood finishes. Furniture was provided by Nathan Gilbert Manufacturers of Norwich.
âThe judge’s benches were made of logs brought to Norwich from New York by boat,â Barrett said. âThey sawed the boards and dried them for a year before using them.â
Plus, much of the sleek lighting that hangs throughout the building was strung, she explained, so they could be lowered to add oil or kerosene, depending on the era. Grooved handrails were also created by artisans with hand tools.
“I feel like I’m in a movie like ‘Gone with the Wind’ when I come down the stairs,” said Barbarossa, theatrically flinging her hair back.
City historian Plummer said, âThe city was thriving. He had the money, the means to show his prosperity by building a new town hall that reflected Norwich as a progressive and vibrant place to make money, and they weren’t ashamed to show it.
Much of the prosperity came from the manufacturing industry, Plummer said, but also from being a warehouse, where goods would mainly be transported by ship, barge or steamboat on the Thames. âSo raw materials like cotton and wool would be brought in, along with other products, metals, etc.,â Plummer said. âAnd then these were transhipped onto wagons, transporting these raw materials to the various mills along what we now call the Quinebaug / Shetucket Corrridor.â
Many factory owners lived on Washington Street and Broadway, he added.
Norwich’s historical significance goes beyond its wealthy people. He was known and respected nationally. In 1860, candidate Abraham Lincoln visited Norwich and the Old Town Hall to campaign for Governor William Buckingham and himself. âThey set up their headquarters at the Wauregan (hotel) and put that flag out,â Barrett said, pointing to a banner depicting a clean-shaven Lincoln (which the city bought with donations and then restored).
Samuel Huntington, a resident of Norwich, “was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and in fact the first President of the United States of America,” Barrett said.
Born in Franklin, Lafayette Foster also served as mayor and senator for Norwich, as well as acting vice president for two years after President Lincoln was assassinated.
Additionally, Norwich was a key weapons maker during the Civil War, Barrett said.
âThis city has withstood many storms and it will come out of it a lot more. It’s a beautiful city with one of the finest town halls I have ever seen, âsaid Bonnie Cuprak, Executive Assistant to Norwich Mayor Peter Nystrom.
Perhaps this is why Hollywood periodically seeks Norwich Town Hall as a movie set. He was featured in “Everybody Wins” with Debra Winger and Nick Nolte in 1990, “Killer” with Paul Wesley, Kaley Cuoco and Gloria Votsis in 2008 and “Holiday for Heroes” with Melissa Claire Egan and Marc Blucas in 2019.
âIt’s a wonderful building to work in. There are so many treasures and different things that you see every time you look around, âBarrett said.
Maintaining Norwich Town Hall is not difficult, said John Johnson, director of facilities and grounds, who oversees a nine-member team that maintains many buildings in the city. The difficult aspect of town hall, he said, are the improvements: modernization of counters, plumbing, electricity and a sprinkler system.
âSo we are trying to do it to the best of our ability and keep going,â he said.
Cuprak said she felt “a Norwich a long time ago” every time she got off the elevator and looked at the scales. However, when she and the staff are visiting with children âand they all sit on the dais (raised platform in the boardroom),â she says, âI watch them and I see the future. mayors, future aldermen and future leaders of the city. and it’s like, ‘Yes!’ “
Jan Tormay, a longtime former Norwich resident, now lives in Westerly.