When I began this blog several months ago, and had to choose a single image to represent it, I knew that I wanted to use a picture of one particular building. The Town Hall has anchored the center of the village for nearly one hundred and thirty years. In the mid-twentieth-century, there was public debate about whether the quirky structure ought to be demolished in favor of a modern civic facility. Ultimately, Wellington decided to preserve the grand old lady and she remains today our most recognizable landmark.
The current town hall is actually Wellington’s third. The first was a far smaller structure built in 1829, which is referred to in records as the “Town House.” I have seen it described in two publications as being made of brick, including in W. E. Barton’s History of the First Congregational Church of Wellington, Ohio (1892). Barton writes that the earliest house of worship for the church was a log building on the NE corner of what is now the downtown intersection. This was likely Mathew DeWolf’s Temperance Tavern, a lodging house where no alcohol was served, which I mentioned in an earlier post. Barton notes that the congregation worshiped in the log structure until “a brick building was erected with an auditorium above, and two school rooms below. The auditorium was also the town hall, the building being erected and owned jointly by the town and the church” (pgs. 24-25).
[ETA: A handwritten letter dated November 9, 1830 confirms the construction of a brick structure at that time, “the upper room for meetings[,] two rooms in the lower part for schools.”]
When the present Town Hall was dedicated in the spring of 1886, The Wellington Enterprise published a lengthy article entitled, “Old Town Halls and the New” (5-12-1886, pg. 3). It also asserted that the original 1829 Town House was built of brick, and stood on the same spot as the current building. I do not know how to reconcile the accounts of this early structure being brick with the publications that record the American House as being the first brick building in the town, built in 1833. Perhaps it is a case of the first “civic” brick building, versus the first “commercial” brick building. Or perhaps the records are simply incorrect.
In 1846, the first Town House was dismantled. Barton wrote that it “was taken down on account of the weakness of the foundation” (pg. 25) but the Enterprise attributed the cause of its demise to its being “too small” to accommodate the many public functions–including funerals–that it hosted. A second or “New” Town House was erected “on or near the site of the old one” (pg. 3). This is the building that would have been standing in 1857, when Archibald Willard painted “Village of Wellington.”
Above is a detail of Willard’s painting. The tall, white structure in the center, with a four-pointed spire, is what became known as the “Old White Church.” It was erected in the 1840s and according to Barton, was still standing at the time his history was published in 1892. “In the next year a new house was erected…It was known as ‘the White Church’ and now painted red is used by the Granville Flooring Co.” (pg. 25). A map of the village printed in 1874 shows the Congregational and Methodist Churches both located south of the American House, with an unlabeled square structure between them. I had been working under the assumption that this unidentified building was the 1846 Town House, until I looked across Main Street and saw “Town Hall” written quite clearly on a dark-shaded building on the west side of the street. Are the records indicating that all three halls have occupied the same location in the town center incorrect? At present, I don’t know the answer to that question.
I wrote several months ago about the anniversary of the Oberlin-Wellington Slave Rescue, and the events that transpired in and around the American House. I mentioned that William Howk was called into the hotel in his capacity as Justice of the Peace. According to his later testimony, recorded in History of the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue (1859), Howk was summoned from the courtroom of the  Town House, which “stands south of the hotel ten or twelve rods, on the same side of the public square” (pg. 39). That seems to confirm my original assumption, but does not explain the 1874 map.
By the early 1880s, Enterprise publisher John Houghton was regularly urging the township trustees to erect a new town hall. He believed that the expansion of the village demanded a larger and more impressive civic space. “We need rooms for election purposes, and for Fire Department and for public gatherings of all kinds,” he editorialized in 1882. It took several more years before plans began to take shape. There is actually very little mention in the Enterprise when things finally got underway, and issues published in a critical period of months during the construction process are sadly lost. In June, 1885 it was reported that the building being replaced “was sold at auction Monday to W. R. Santley & Co. for $209, that being the highest bid received. The brick building used for a fire engine house was sold to C. W. Horr for $40. The town hall will be moved near to the saw mill [Santley’s mill was on Magyar Street], and fitted up for manufacturing purposes. We should think the buildings were well sold, the cost of moving either of them being about all they are worth” (6-3-1885, pg. 5).
A month later, the township trustees opened construction bids filed with township clerk Noah Huckins. The paper reported that the aggregate cost of the project would be a little less than $30,000. “The ground was surveyed Saturday evening and the work began today…The building is to be completed, all ready for dedication, Apr. 1st, ’86” (7-1-1885, pg. 4).
In addition to serving as a seat of local government, the building was designed to include the largest performing arts space in northern Ohio. It seated over one thousand people and for decades served as a center of Lorain County’s social and cultural life. In my next post, I’ll talk more about the Wellington Opera House, including its brilliant and nearly disastrous opening celebrations in the spring of 1886.
UPDATE: Hard to believe it has taken two years, but I think I have finally cracked this case. I recently (February 2016) located a notice in the Lorain County News that appears to explain part of the mystery. In an article about the reorganization of the educational system in the village, we find this: “The Brick, known as the Town Hall, was a partnership concern, one story owned by the School district and the other by the Township. An exchange has been effected by the Board of Education, so that the building known as the ‘Free Church’ has now become the Town Hall, and both stories of the Brick are fitted for the higher department of our common school; the south school house, and by the purchase of the Female Seminary and lot north are to be the preparatory departments” (9-9-1863, pg. 3). So, the short answer is: there were at least FIVE town halls in the village’s history.
- 1830-1845: First brick “Town House,” with a construction date confirmed in a private letter; dismantled, possibly due to structural instability. An 1884 Wellington Enterprise notice claimed that this building burned.
- 1846-1863: “The Brick,” or “New Town House,” built on the same site as #1, converted fully to a school in 1863 and demolished at an unknown date. (Depicted in 1857 Willard painting.) A May 1886 Wellington Enterprise article described this building as “being nearly forty years of age when removed.”
- 1863-1879?: “Old Free Church,” a wooden structure on the opposite side of South Main Street that was built in 1852 but abandoned as a church ca. 1861; later sold, relocated, and used by Christie & Bennett as a wagon shop. (Location indicated in 1874 atlas map of the village.) Burned in 1937.
- 1879?-1885: “Old White Church,” a wooden structure abandoned as a church in 1879; later sold to W.R. Santley & Co. for $209, relocated to their lumber yard (possibly on the west end of Magyar Street), and destroyed in a fire in 1892.
- 1886-present: Three-story brick structure, formerly also an opera house.