Uniquely Medfield: The Burning of Town Hall
A weekly column by Town Historian Richard DeSorgher. This week focuses on the burning of town hall 90 years ago this week.
It was exactly 90 years ago, on Jan. 17, 1923, that the Medfield Town Hall burned for the second time in 50 years.
That morning dawned bitter cold and all of Medfield was covered in a blanket of white from a recent snowstorm. It was just before 7 a.m. when the first alarm came in that Medfield’s seat of government was on fire.
Before the day was over, the entire inside of Town Hall was gutted, leaving only a partial shell standing. The blankets of snow on the nearby buildings kept the fire from spreading. Hot embers were reported to have fallen up to two miles away. A defective chimney was thought to have been the cause. Luckily the town had installed a fireproof cement vault which saved many of the town records. This was a lesson learned when the first Town Hall burned in 1874, two years after its completion.
During that first fire, local citizens led by Charles Hamant, performed heroic actions, even risking their lives, to save the town safe which contained town records, books and early town papers. Hamant, using a chain, with the blazing fire inferno all about him, succeeded in preventing the safe from falling into the mass of fire below where its entire contents would have been destroyed. As it was, the books and papers inside were still severely scorched. Many other records, not in the safe, were destroyed.
The estimated loss was put at $50,000. All town departments suffered near total losses. The American Legion and the American Red Cross, which were also located in Town Hall, also sustained near total loss. Due to the fire and destruction of Town Hall, all town departments had to be relocated around town. The post office, also located in Town Hall, was moved to the Central Railroad Station on Park Street.
A Special Town Meeting was called and voters appropriated the sum of $32,000 to rebuild the Town Hall. The Board of Selectmen appointed a building committee which included George Sauer, Carl Johnson, Arthur Smith, Alexander MacLean and Isabelle Kingsbury.
Medfield High School graduation, which in the past had taken place in Town Hall (Chenery Hall), was held instead in the second Congregational Church (today’s United Church of Christ). Town Meetings, which were also held in Town Hall (Chenery Hall), were moved to the Unitarian Church with voting in the vestry of the church. The Medfield Fire Department was located in the basement of Town Hall and all surviving apparatus had to be moved to local garages. Town meeting voted $720 for payment of the garage rent.
The upper hall had been used for all town basketball games. Due to the fire, high school basketball practice was eliminated and all games had to be played “away.” The independent league, known as the Crescent Athletic Club and made up of high school boys, was forced to disband.
Due to mild weather, the Medfield Town Hall was quickly rebuilt by early fall. It conformed largely to its present-day architecture, except a money-saving flat roof replaced the former steep slate roof. In 1994, the town embarked on a major renovation of the building, including redesigning and rebuilding the interior; inserting a third floor in the old Chenery Hall space for the school department’s central offices; converting the ground floor, which had formerly occupied the fire department and the highway department, into office space; adding an elevator tower; and restoring the roof to the original steep design. The renovations were completed and the Town Hall was re-dedicated in September of 1998.