Rye Town Hall is a National Treasure

Efforts should be supported to get Town Hall on the National Registry of Historic Places

Earl Rinker

When nice things get old we call them antiques.  When nice buildings get old we call them National Treasures.

Rye’s Town Hall is a nice old building, and it has become a National Treasure. It’s time for it to be designated as such.

Several years ago Dr. Michael Mittleman was asked if he would undertake the task of discovering if Rye’s Town Hall could be placed on the National Registry of Historic Places.  According to Jane Holway, Chairman of the Rye Historic District Commission and an authority on such things, the Town Hall was originally a church built circa 1841.

Town Hall is in reasonably good shape having been painted a couple of years ago.  Damaged clapboards were either repaired or replaced.  Around that time all the shutters which had deteriorated badly were also replaced.  These new shutters are made from solid cedar, as were the originals, and are painted with several coats of high quality paint in the same color as the originals.  

One might wonder why there are no shrubs or plants in front of Town Hall. Not so long ago there was landscaping there.  However, after getting a request from the Historic District Commission, the Town removed all plants and shrubs because there was no shrubbery there originally.  More research done by Jane Holway.

Roughly 15 years ago the inside was divided by taking up part of the space upstairs where the Church congregation used to sit.  About three years ago the rest of the upstairs space was divided into new office space for the Rye Sewer Commission, a small kitchen and, for the first time, an upstairs bathroom.  The open space upstairs wasn’t really being used for anything and the Town was growing.  The integrity of the building has been maintained as nearly all the improvements made in Town Hall can be undone putting the building back to its original state.

A few more than 30 years after being built, the building was sold to the Town and was used for community events such as concerts and plays.  The stage is still there (the stage curtain was donated to the Rye Historical Society) and the high tin ceilings have been preserved.  (The downside to that is that the cost to heat the space is quite high although the building is fully insulated.)  The roof is in good shape as are the gutters, repairs having been made in a timely manner.  Several years ago there was some serious wind damage, and the Town’s insurance paid for most of the repairs.

Dr. Mittleman has put much effort into getting Town Hall onto the National Historic Registry.  (At the same time he discovered it could probably be listed on the State Historic Registry as well.) After Mike’s hard work dealing with experts on the state and national level, he found that he needed some technical expertise.  Christine Fonda Ranke, New Hampshire’s State Historian, said that an historic preservation consultant could expedite getting the building nominated.  It is believed that the cost to finish the job is about $3,000.

For some reason the Selectmen were unwilling to put this amount in a Town-sponsored warrant article.  Dr. Mittleman was advised that if he wanted a Warrant Article on the ballot, he should do it as a petitioned article which could be done by getting at least 25 of Rye’s registered voters to sign a petition asking for the $3,000.  (Mike got 65 signatures in quick time.)

Selectmen and Budget Committee members are required to either “recommend” or to “not recommend” Warrant Articles which ask for money. Neither board would recommend the Article. There was great discussion at the recent Town Deliberative Session and, to the Budget Committee’s credit after getting all the facts, the vote was changed and the Article endorsed by that committee.  This is somewhat ironic, because people are more apt to see a Warrant Article recommended by the Selectmen, but not recommended by the Budget Committee (it is believed that Budget Committee members are generally tougher on budget items), not the other way around.

And why wouldn’t the Selectmen support the Article?  There was concern on the part of at least one of the Selectmen that being on the National Historic Register might restrict what could be done with the building.  

I must confess that several years ago when I was Rye’s Town Administrator, I researched this issue and found that there are no restrictions.  Clearly stated in both state and federal literature, placing a building on the registry in no way restricts what can be done with it.  In a letter to Dr. Mittleman from Elizabeth Mussey, New Hampshire’s Survey Coordinator, she reiterates that fact and states that these registers are not regulatory boards and only recognize that the building has historic value!

The building can be modified in any way its owners want; it can be sold (that would be a shame I think), and the new owners could modify the building in any way they wanted.  As former Selectman Mel Low said, “You could probably paint it pink if you wanted to.”  He’s right.  Jane Holway has pointed out that having the building on the list might make it eligible for grants from the state or federal governments.

When I worked for Rye, I always thought it was wonderful that Rye’s Town Hall employees could work in such an historic environment and yet have all of the modern technological things needed to be successful in today’s work place.  Of course, I appreciate most old things (including myself) and believe in preserving rather than destroying whenever possible.

I hope the voters in Rye will approve this Warrant Article.  We’re talking a mere $3,000 in a $6.9 million budget.  It’s time for Rye’s Town Hall to get the recognition it deserves.

In an attempt at full disclosure, it should be noted that Rinker was Rye’s Town Administrator when this process started.  He had asked Mittleman if he would take on this project.  Both Rinker and Mittleman used to live in the Manchester area and knew each other; Mittleman is an M.D. and was Rinker’s dermatologist.

March, 2006