Honor the veterans’ building

Chipped paint is seen on the Capt. Lester S. Wass Legion Post No. 3 on Washington Street in Gloucester on Oct. 24.

It’s time for the City of Gloucester to find the funds to fully restore one of the Commonwealth’s most historic 19th century buildings.

Constructed in 1844 as the Town House, and known today as the Legion Memorial Building, the Washington Street structure was the first formal seat of government for America’s first seaport. Up until then, as throughout most of New England, town affairs were conducted in meeting houses.

By the mid-19th century, the town was growing and coming into its own. A house of stature was needed that reflected the seriousness of town business. The Town House was designed in the popular Greek Revival architectural style of the time. It was a brand inspired by that 5th century B.C. monument to democracy, the Greek Parthenon. Gloucester’s new temple to local government demonstrated an American belief in democracy as invented by the Greeks.

Unlike most Colonial-era buildings, such as the nearby White-Ellery House, Greek Revival buildings were turned end-on with the triangular gable end pediment facing the street. Paint it marble white, add some Ionic columns and Gloucester had a mini-Parthenon all its own.

In 1867, as the town continued to prosper, government operations needed more room and so a larger town hall was built on Dale Avenue. Within two years, however, fire destroyed the new building. It was replaced in 1871 by the present City Hall.

The Town House was a classic testament to mid-19th century Americana. In addition to municipal business, other stuff happened there, both mundane and noteworthy. Sabbath classes were conducted, along with theatrical performances, concerts, and museum exhibits. It hosted a bowling alley. and not sure how this went over in the seafaring town, but temperance lectures were also held there. Ralph Waldo Emerson, the American essayist, philosopher, abolitionist, and poet who led the 19th century transcendental movement, spoke there. It was later the Forbes School.

Two years after the conclusion of World War I, and a year after the American Legion was founded, the Capt. Lester S. Wass American Legion Post 3 occupied the Town House. Since 1920, the post has leased the facility from the city for a $1 a year. It has since taken on the name of the Legion Memorial Building.

As listed in the National Register of Historic Places, the Legion Memorial Building is an important component of the Central Gloucester Historic District. The building’s north portico faces the 1921 bronze statue of Joan of Arc. It is all part of Legion Square, which honors those from Gloucester who served in World War I.

Although the city owns the building and has sole responsibility for its outside upkeep, it has failed miserably to do so.

As noted recently in this newspaper, the 178-year-old edifice is in dire need of a makeover. The structure’s roof, gutters, clapboard siding and wooden columns are not only in need of a paint job but are rotting and deteriorating. Over the years, water, the enemy of old wooden buildings, has infiltrated throughout.

Due to the lack of annual upkeep, what may have once been routine maintenance job is now a very expensive restoration project.

In 2017, the Gloucester Historical Commission hired William C.S. Remsen, chief preservation architect for International Preservation Associates, Inc. of Gloucester to report on the building’s condition and needs. Not surprisingly, Remsen noted that it suffered from a “significant lack of maintenance.” What a public embarrassment.

Post Commander Mark Nestor’s own recent estimate from local general contractor Geoffrey H. Richon puts the capital improvements at $373,000. The costs increase daily and that’s for exterior work alone.

However well-intentioned the Legion’s project to paint the exterior is, as mentioned recently in this newspaper, paint will only cover up the building’s deterioration. Although it may briefly look nice for the Gloucester400+ celebration, it is equally important for all to see the city’s continued woeful neglect of a historic obligation.

To the old Town House, and those veterans who have occupied its sacred space, thank you for your service to the City of Gloucester, and our nation — you both deserve our respect. Now on with the funding.

Jack Clarke is a Gloucester resident and frequent contributor to the Gloucester Daily Times.

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