We’re celebrating a special birthday this summer—the Grand Island Town Hall is turning 50. This week I’m going to write a little bit about the history of town halls through the years. It’s more exciting than it sounds, I promise.
In the Beginning
During the early days of Grand Island, Town meetings were held once each spring at the Supervisor’s home. Most officials and employees worked from their own homes or businesses. In 1873, the Town officials decided they needed a central location.
Supervisor H. B. Ransom purchased the land for the first Town Hall in for $425. Two years later, in 1875, the first Town Hall was built. The plain Shaker-style building was reminiscent of a plain church or schoolhouse and cost a total of $560 to build. Inside the Town Hall were government offices, a school, and the library. It was a central gathering place for parties, meetings, and dances.
In the 1930’s, New York State purchased what are now Beaver Island and Buckhorn State Parks, and the Civilian Conservation Corps began restoring the land. The first set of bridges, one leading south to Tonawanda and one leading north, to Niagara Falls, were completed in 1935. Reliable transportation boosted the population from a meager 1,000 —many of which were seasonal visitors and vacationers—to nearly 5,000 residents in the early 1950s. To accommodate this growth, the Town decided to build a new Town Hall. The second Town Hall was located in front of the current Town Hall and had a distinctive cupola on top.
The cupola was used as a lookout during World War II. Though the Town Hall was demolished to make room for the current building, the cupola was saved. It spent many years on the Kelly property at the corner of Long and Grand Island Blvd. It’s dilapidated, but still impressive—easily taller than a grown man. It’s at the current Town Hall now, waiting to be restored. Look for it in the Fourth of July parade this year.
During the 1950s and 1960s Grand Island flourished. The second set of bridges, twins to the existing ones, opened in 1965 to accommodate the increasing traffic. In the mid-1960s citizens and officials began to consider expanding the Town facilities.
Surprisingly, it was a contentious issue. Many were convinced that a new Town Hall was unnecessary, a waste of money. One councilman stated, “I oppose the building of the new town hall… the taxpayers should stop and think what half a million dollars will mean to them.” Others, like the Grand Island Jaycees, a progressive group of young men involved in the community, advocated that a new Town Hall was needed to keep up with the growth of Grand Island.
“Grand Island voters cannot dodge the fact that progress dictates the need of a modern, adequate facilities for the hub of town business. We cannot long look for continued progress without updating that which is grossly overrated,” a public notice in the Dispatch stated.
After years of argument, the decision went to public referendum on March 28, 1966. The majority voted in favor of the proposed building, and construction began. The new Town Hall was erected in 1968 under the year of Supervisor Raymond Griffin. It was the subject of many an April Fool’s joke: the Dispatch published a front page article on the giant modern “Lirpa Loof” sculpture dropped by helicopter onto the roof, and another about the former Town Hall being shrunk down and relocated to Beaver Island.
Since that time, Town Hall has gone from a shiny new building to a drab, secret-filled hideaway, and finally back to what it was meant to be—a place for residents to come for help or knowledge, a place for people to get involved, and a place where elected officials can oversee projects that make Grand Island a better community.
My office and the Historic Preservation Advisory Board has been hard at work putting together birthday celebration for the 50-year-old Town Hall. There will be a display of historic photos, a short presentation, and cake, of course. Please join us at Town Hall at 1 p.m. on July 7 to celebrate Town Hall’s birthday. I hope to see you there!