Garden club seeks selectmen's help in maintaining Old Town Hall
Sunlight streams through original 19th-Century windowpanes at Wilton’s Old Town Hall the same as it did when the structure was built in 1832. Antique tables once used, perhaps, for early town meetings rest their legs in the main hall, where the town’s political committees still hold their meetings.
The town hall, once slated for destruction in the early 1930s, was saved by the Wilton Garden Club around the same time. Now, says Nan Merolla, the garden club needs some assistance to keep this “special place” open to the general public.
At the Oct. 21 meeting of the Board of Selectmen, Ms. Merolla, president of the garden club, and Suzanne Knutson, vice president, reviewed their beloved club’s financial situation and asked the board to consider providing funds to cover utility costs in the building.
Currently, the club leases the building from the town at a rate of $1 per year and covers all costs associated with keeping the building in working order.
The cost of utilities at the Old Town Hall, according to statistics provided by the garden club, has a five-year average of $4,874.40.
Ms. Merolla said on Monday the club was happy to see a positive reaction from the Board of Selectmen, whose members all individually praised the work the club does on a yearly basis.
The board, however, was not without suggestions. It had two major suggestions for the club — increased publicity and increased fund-raising efforts — which the club has plans on pursuing.
The Old Town Hall was first constructed in 1832, when the bottom floor was used for town meetings, and the second floor fittingly held a private secondary school called The Wilton Academy.
The land for the building was donated by Nathan Comstock — whose namesake adorns the town’s community center. Wilton’s first town meeting in the building, according to the garden club, was held in October 1832, though it was not yet completed.
By the 1920s, Wilton had far outgrown the building used to hold its popular meetings. As the garden club history details, “the balcony was often so loaded with people that it was in danger of collapsing on the heads of people below.”
During that same time, the building was so crowded that residents allegedly had to shout through the windows to make comments.
Since the building was decommissioned as town hall in the 1930s, the garden club has kept the Old Town Hall heated and electrified, thanks to income from renting the property and from its fund-raisers — like the annual Mother’s Day flower sale.
Renting the building currently costs $35 per hour, including setup and breakdown, with a three-hour minimum.
“We’ve always worked to keep the rates very reasonable and attractive,” Ms. Merolla said.
Decline in use
Since the recession began in 2008, however, the number of renters searching for a charming building “right in the middle of a historic district” has decreased sharply, said Barbara Russell and Linda Schmidt, two members of the garden club.
“It’s really a lovely building,” Ms. Schmidt added.
Long-term renters, like ballet studios that used the space, have gone out of business, and the number of one-time renters has decreased as well, Ms. Merolla said. At the same time, costs have increased while possible renters moved on to new venues, like Ambler Farm and the Congregational Church.
“The expenses have been going crazy, and rentals have simply not been keeping up,” she said.
Though Wilton residents once regarded the Old Town Hall as an excellent rental option for banquets, birthdays and Christmas parties, Ms. Merolla and her fellow club members worry that many people in town do not realize it is a beautiful rental option.
The garden club is not asking the Board of Selectmen to chip in without also being willing to change the way it operates the Old Town Hall. The group plans on addressing both suggestions that were proposed by the board on Oct. 21, Ms. Merolla said.
Promoting the building more actively, Ms. Merolla said, is at the top of their to-do list.
“Promotion is very important because it will let people know this space is available, and it shows off what a special place this is,” she said. The club plans on advertising in local publications, and by placing advertising cards in high-traffic areas of town.
The club will also be offering open house events at the building to garner support, and is currently brainstorming ideas for additional fund-raising efforts throughout the year.
Of course, the club president said, the group is always looking for local angel investors to help keep the Old Town Hall the way it is today. Anyone interested in financially helping to maintain the building, she said, should keep on the lookout for public open houses.