Town Hall

Because I was a newspaper reporter for a decade in Keene, New Hampshire, attending scores of different kinds of meetings all over the Monadnock Region, but especially annual town meetings, I became very familiar with town halls in New Hampshire and their affect on the people and culture of the communities. Over time I came to believe in the beauty and practicality of the town meeting form of government. It's a belief that underlies much of the fiction in the Darby Chronicles.

Those qualities that I admire in town meeting are personified in the buildings themselves, the town halls. People build structures to signify their identities, but the structures, often after the demise of their creators, impact future generations in ways that shape who they are. Architecture matters.

This idea that would go on to be a theme in my work presented itself to me when I was a graduate student at Stanford University living in the San Francisco bay area. The first apartment my bride and I rented was in Palo Alto. It was a long white building, two stories high, with a very nice pool at the front entry. It looked a little bit like a motel, both inside and outside–but a nice motel.

Our place was on the second floor. You walked down a narrow carpeted hallway. You felt confined by the walls. If someone was coming toward you the tendency was not to make eye-contact and to be wary. There was no escape in that hallway. In those days I was young, big Frank Zappa style mustache, swarthy complexion. No problem when I was with my wife, but when I was alone I sensed the fear I evoked in some women who had to walk by me in that hallway. It was that feeling toward me that rang a bell in my head: bad architecture.

We had a nice little balcony in our apartment, but it looked out at the next apartment building. The sides were sealed off so you couldn't see your neighbors. Bad architecture.

I went down by the pool a couple times to swim, but I never saw anyone else in the area. It was lonely swimming in a pool alone. After a few months we had not met anyone. The place, like a motel, was designed for people who wanted privacy, who were fearful, who wanted to hide. We wanted community. We got another apartment in the next town over, Menlo Park, and everything changed.

The place was a lot smaller. You reached your apartment on a large open deck. I think there were eight doors leading off that wide board landing. People decorated their doors, painted them different colors, left potted plants on the deck. Sat in lounge chairs to sun themselves. Day we moved in we met two of our neighbors. By the end of the week, we had a nodding acquaintance with half a dozen people. We found that the apartment dwellers could often on the deck, which was open on three sides and to the sky to commune, for conversation. If you didn't want to commune you went inside and closed your door. It all worked. Good architecture.

So what is good about the architecture of a New England town hall? Most town halls look like churches. They were built in a time when church, government, and what we call today "social media" were integrated. The building doubled as a house of worship. The United States constitution split off government from religion, but many communities continued to use their church buildings for town meeting.

Today people of all kinds of religions and of no religion gather in town halls to discuss town matters and to vote. Even an atheist or an agnostic, such as myself, can't help but feel a certain formality and, even, spirituality when one enters the "hall" part of the town hall. If I may resort to my seventies counter-culture lingo: town halls throw off good vibes. The town hall as gathering place is good on a practical level, supplying a meeting place for townspeople, but also good in the morality sense of the word.

Architecture matters.

Darby's town hall is based on the Park Hill Meeting House in my neighborhood in Westmoreland, New Hampshire, but with many differences. From the outside you could mistake the Darby town hall for a Christian Church, though not a Catholic Church. At the top of the steeple is a weather vane, not a cross, and the windows while tall and wide and kind of grand are plain glass. No stained glass, no stations of the cross, no graven images in this building, thank you very much. Of course at one time the town hall was a church. Church and state if not one and the same were pretty close. Some people would like a return to those days.

You enter through tall doors into a small hallway, very spare. The entry into the main meeting room is wide and inviting. The walls are bare wood, very beautiful the way pine boards age if you don't paint them. There's a big open space with folding chairs stacked along the side. The floor is wide pine boards, not flat, but with undulations. Along our roads in the spring you'll see signs warning of "frost heaves." There are no signs in the town hall warning of "heaves" in the floor boards, but they are there. You can feel the history of earth on the soles of your feet. At one end is a stage erected later, you can tell, because everything looks cheaper than the original wood work, which has a warmth and complexity to it. The windows are grand and tall.

The town hall has a furnace but it only heats rooms on the first floor where town offices, kitchen, and conferences rooms have been carved out of what was once a worship area. Upstairs is the main meeting room, which is only used for special occasions–wedding receptions, voting and the like–and of course for town meeting. In the hall you will find four wood burning stoves, which are fired up when necessary, which is often in this climate. The state fire marshall has repeatedly warned the town that wood heat in such an old building is inherently dangerous, and every year the selectman put in warrant article asking the town to raise funds to remove the wood stoves and expand the central heating, and every year the warrant article is turned down by acclamation. It's a tradition.

You're alone in the town hall in that meeting space. Close your eyes, concentrate; you can hear a hush, the sound of the distant echo of Creation day. Actually, it's the sound of carpenter ants methodically dismantling the Darby Town Hall. A few years and the building will be too dangerous for human habitation. A problem for the town. And for the writer, a plot point to develop? Maybe.

Architecture matters.