History of the Fairlee Town Hall
The Fairlee Town Hall is the centerpiece of the Fairlee Village Historic District, which was listed in the State Register of Historic Places on March 15, 1989. The Village includes a large segment of the residential, commercial, religious and civic buildings and sites that are associated with and symbolize the civic life and history of the Town of Fairlee. Like many small communities throughout the state, these resources were cohesively arranged around the Town Common: by 1910 there was a small library, the Meeting House and Church, an Opera House, a livery stable, and the general store.
On the night of December 5, 1912, as members of the Fairlee Grange who had been meeting in the Union Church were heading home, they noticed flames coming from the Opera House. The fire had started in a harness shop owned by Mr. Stebbins on the lower floor of the Opera House. Although aid was summoned from Orford and Bradford, in about two hours the entire Opera House, the Union Church and Meeting House, and the library were consumed in the blaze.
Four days later, a Special Town Meeting was warned by the Fairlee Selectboard to be held on December 21, 1912, at the village school house to take action on four articles. At the meeting, it was voted that the Town of Fairlee would waive their right in favor of the Federated Church of Fairlee to all insurance moneys to be received on the church building; that the town construct a Town House and Library and appoint a committee of four to act in conjunction with the selectboard to make arrangement concerning the same. Furthermore, it was voted to adjourn the meeting to February 8, 1913, when they would receive a report from the Committee as to whether wood or concrete construction would be cheaper. A fourth article as to how much money the town would raise to pay for the new building was passed over, presumably until the meeting in February. At that subsequent meeting, it was voted to accept the plans and report received from the committee, and to “…to get specifications and bids and go ahead and let the same to the lowest responsible bidder.”
The Town’s new building was to be erected on the site of the destroyed Opera House; it is assumed that the Town of Fairlee acquired the land parcel from Mr. Stebbins, who owned the Opera House at the time of the fire. The new wood frame, two-story Town Hall was designed in the then-popular Colonial Revival style by architect John A. Donahue of Fairlee. The design of the building in this style reflects Donahue’s awareness of fashionable architectural designs. This is the only building in Fairlee or the surrounding area attributed to him.
The building featured space on the first floor for the Fairlee Public Library; a meeting room and storage closet for the town’s Selectboard; and meeting, dining and kitchen space for the local Grange chapter. In order to replace the loss of the opera house, the entire second floor was devoted to a large auditorium with a stage and third level balcony. L. J. Robinson of Waterbury, VT, was selected as the general contractor and the foreman during construction was C. S. Spiller of Morrisville, VT. The final cost of the building when completed in early 1914 was $10,000. As the activities of the Town Clerk and the library increased, the building was modestly enlarged in 1953 with a vault on the north elevation and in 1954 with a library addition on the south elevation.
Although not yet formally dedicated, the community held its first annual Town Meeting in the new facility on March 3, 1914; and the formal dedication took place slightly more than a week later on March 12, 1914. A lengthy and glowing detailed account of the new building's dedication was published in the Friday, March 20, 1914, edition of The United Opinion newspaper. Among the several speakers at the event was Vermont Governor Allen M. Fletcher. After the dedication ceremony was completed, a chicken pie supper was served in the first floor dining room; and the Lyric Quartette of Chicago gave a concert in the second floor auditorium that filled the room to capacity. Attesting to the strong civic and cultural life this building was to serve, as many as seven hundred persons visited Fairlee to take part in some or all of the dedication ceremonies.
One of the most striking aspects of the Town Hall is the very rare and beautiful painted Theater Curtain. In 1912, apparently prior to the fire, the town arranged for L. L. Graham and Sons Painters of Brooklyn, NY, to create a painted theater or “stage” curtain, depicting a restful and beautiful scene of Lake Morey. Fortunately, the curtain was not installed in the Opera House prior to the fire, but was later hung in the auditorium of the new Town Hall. It was eventually taken down and rather poorly placed into storage. In 2006, as part of a statewide effort to locate and restore historic painted theater curtains, the Fairlee curtain was professionally cleaned and repaired so that it could once again hang above the stage of the second floor auditorium. On Sunday July 23, 2006, it was unveiled and rededicated as in important part of the Fairlee Town Hall.
In 2014, Fairlee celebrated the 100th birthday of the Town Hall with several events, including the unveiling of the National Register of Historic Places plaque, talks on the history of Fairlee, and dancing.