Tuesday, August 30, 2016

New Adventures at Old Town Hall

This summer, I spent eight weeks working on an exhibition script at the Delaware Historical Society in Wilmington. The Society will soon be reopening Old Town Hall, a building that served a central role in Wilmington life from its completion in 1799 until the present. The space will feature an exhibition about the building’s history and significance to Wilmington’s past. As part of this effort, I spent my time with the Society researching the space’s history, both as a physical structure and as a civic, social, cultural, and even economic center of the city.

My exploration yielded fascinating stories. The building’s roles in city life went far beyond the functions we associate with a town or city hall today. The building hosted Presidents, inventors, and entertainers. It became a place where its residents gathered in discussion, mourning, and celebration. It acted as a meeting place for several important groups, ranging from local fire companies to the Red Cross. The interesting stories that I discovered far exceed the length of a single blog post, but one of the most interesting themes was the space’s ability to act as both a central place for local activity and a way for the people of Wilmington to engage in national (and at times, international) affairs.

Wilmingtonians came to Old Town Hall to consider regional concerns like the construction of a canal and railroad lines, to purchase stock in local companies, and to organize on behalf of local politicians. Those who ran afoul of the law were placed in the basement's jail cells. Groups like Wilmington’s Community Service met there to address local issues, while other organizations held events like balls and craft expos to raise funds.

At the same time, Old Town Hall became a place where people could look beyond city limits. Anti-slavery and Temperance societies used the space for meetings and events, as did groups in favor of American industrial development and others seeking rights for laborers. People exhibiting the latest inventions, including a miniature steam locomotive, held demonstrations there, while scientists and other intellectuals lectured on their studies. National figures attended receptions, and locals gathered to memorialize the loss of well-known figures like Henry Clay, whose body lay in state at the Hall after his death. Recruitment and meetings of soldiers linked the space to various wars, while Wilmingtonians also gathered to celebrate military triumphs and welcome returning troops.

In addition to housing the Red Cross during World War I, Old Town Hall linked locals to international affairs by becoming an occasional center for discussion about issues affecting other nations, including the demand for the repeal of the legislative union of Great Britain and Ireland. The building was a place that forged connections between Wilmingtonians and local, national, and international happenings.

To uncover the stories behind Old Town Hall’s roles, I took advantage of an array of the Delaware Historical Society’s vast resources. Secondary sources included an architectural study of the space from the renovation during the 1960s, as well as other books about Delaware history that provided leads for further examination. Some of the most helpful primary resources were the extensive newspaper holdings at the Society, which helped to confirm what happened when and document public reactions. The Borough (and later, City) Council Minutes also shed light on how the space was used and controversies about its use. Broadsides announcing meetings supplemented the information, as did photographs and even some objects associated with the space. Occasional letters and other miscellaneous material rounded out my study. It was only through synthesizing information from all of these sources that the story of Old Town Hall could come to light.

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