By Penni Martorell
Happy anniversary, Holyoke! 2023 is the sesquicentennial, or more commonly called the 150th anniversary of the incorporation of the city. It is our good fortune that we, the citizens of Holyoke, will, at long last, will hold an official dedication ceremony for Holyoke’s City Hall, a structure that is not only of notable architecture, but also a fundamental component of Holyoke’s past, present, and future and the foundation of our community.
In a July 1876 article, the Holyoke Transcript reported:
“There ought to be public spirit enough in this city to appropriately dedicate this noble building. There seems to be a small faction opposed to it, but they should not be allowed to present a fitting dedication by those whose money has been spent in the construction of the finest hall in New England.”
That’s right, Holyoke City Hall was never dedicated upon its completion. Apparently, that small faction held out, and other circumstances derailed the building’s official dedication. So, it is only appropriate that we take time now to dedicate this magnificent building as it has stood in service to Holyoke for a century and a half. The official dedication will take place on Thursday, April 6.
Most of the story about City Hall is documented in Holyoke Annual Reports and a lengthy, detailed, unsigned article in the Saturday morning edition of the July 1, 1876 Holyoke Transcript. And as history so often reveals itself in layers, there are likely many more stories about the building. So here is some background information and details about the construction.
The total financial outlay to build this magnificent building, when all was said and done, was $372,000 in 1876. (Additional research done by the Historical Commission indicates that final cost was closer to $500,000 at the time.) In any case, in today’s money, that would be more than $10 million.
The town of Holyoke was established by an act of Massachusetts Congress Chapter 71 and signed into law On March 14, 1850 by Gov. George Nixon Briggs. The town’s first board meetings were held in rented meeting halls like Chapin Hall, Parsons Hall, and the Exchange Hall. A separate selectmen’s office was rented starting in 1861. The largest financial challenges for the town at that time were fees to West Springfield in relation to the contract of separation.
Constructing a building of this size and character was not an easy task, nor was it inexpensive. Delays and contractual issues increased the amount of time and money it took to complete this monumental undertaking. Unfortunately, division arose early on deciding where the building should be located. More delays arose during the building of City Hall and were memorialized in Holyoke’s Building Committee reports.
Fortunately, the city’s incorporation in 1873 brought about the reorganization of elected officials and, most importantly, new Building Committee members who acted quickly and effectively to get the construction work back on track … but it wasn’t a smooth process.
In October 1874, the new Building Committee contracted H.F. Kilburn of New York to serve as architect under the supervision of Watson Ely of Holyoke. In order to facilitate the completion of the building in a timely manner, Ely ordered that everyone that had moved into the unfinished building vacate the building and then closed City Hall during the winter of 1874.
Charles Attwood was the original architect who created the Gothic Revival and Romanesque Revival structural plan in 1871. However, many others contributed structural and decorative details, including local builder Casper Ranger, John Delaney, Ecclesiastical Stained Glass Works, Watson Ely, Henry Kilburn, Kronenberger and Sons, Filippo Santoro, Serpentino Stained Glass, and Samuel West.
Beyond the granite exterior walls, stone steps and pavers, and slate roof, other building materials include random ashlar, galvanized iron, glass, lead, marble, wood, brick, sheet metal, and copper.
One of the most important historical and stately features of Holyoke City Hall is the looming clock and bell tower. The imperial tower stands 225 feet high and houses a bell that weighs nearly 5,000 pounds. The clock’s face is composed of two-inch-thick Belgium milk glass. Sadly, the clock was inoperable and the bell was silent for decades. Thanks to Friends of City Hall, David Cotton, and a team of volunteers, the clock was restored after completing hundreds of hours of repairs, and on July 4, 2018, the clock was lit up and began keeping time again after almost 30 years.
But back to City Hall itself. As of July 1876, it had not been dedicated, and research has not found any indication it was ever dedicated. It’s time to remedy that.
Penni Martorell is Holyoke’s city historian and curator at Wistariahurst.