In Bucolic Rye N.H., the Old Town Hall Inspires Loyalty...and Loathing

Mar 8, 2018

Mae Bradshaw walks the exterior of Rye Town Hall, which she is fighting to save.
Credit Todd Bookman/NHPR

It’s Town Meeting time, and in Rye, a long-simmering controversy is back on the ballot. On Tuesday, voters there will decide the fate of the old Town Hall.

For many in town, the 180-year old building raises civic pride. Others are simply ready to raze it.

[Editor’s note: we strongly recommend listening to this story.]

It’s hard for John Loftus to find nice things to say about Rye Town Hall.

During a tour, a public radio reporter points to the unique tin ceilings.

“Yup, loaded with asbestos,” says Loftus.

The reporter inspects the interesting old matching curved staircases.

“These stairs are not to code, they’ll never be to code,” he notes.

But what about the catwalk above the entrance?

“So this is, like, wasted space,” he points out.

John Loftus would make a terrible realtor, but he’s a good salesman for his vision. The retired home builder wants to tear down this building and start fresh, giving the residents of Rye and the town’s employees a new municipal space.

In advance of Town Meeting, Loftus has been making his case during a series of information sessions at the Rye Public Library.

The tin ceilings and chandelier inside Rye Town Hall.
Credit Todd Bookman/NHPR

The night I attended, a dozen or so residents watched as Loftus ran through a Powerpoint presentation showing plans and 3D renderings for a new town hall that’s he’s spent the past year designing.

It would be in the same location, right in the heart of town, but nearly one-third bigger in size, with more parking and meeting rooms.

It would also be ADA compliant, unlike the current structure, as well as more energy efficient. The price tag, including demolition, is just over $3 million.

To Debbie Crapo, sitting in the front row, that sounds like a deal.

“I personally don’t want any of my taxes to go into that old Town Hall anymore,” she says. “I feel like I might as well burn my [money] in an ashtray.”

A three-story pile of burning money is not how everyone sees old Town Hall. The building, which was originally a Methodist Church, was the hub of town for more than a century. It hosted dances, plays, graduations and weddings.

Judy Tracey, a longtime resident, says those events are deeply ingrained in her history, and the town’s.   

“When I was a child, living in Rye...there were events going on here on the stage. It was just wonderful,” she says, standing in front of the stage where an out-of-tune piano sits to one side. The rest of the second floor has been portioned off for office space.

A 3D rendering of a proposed new Town Hall.
Credit Courtesy of John Loftus

That’s one of the main problems with the current Town Hall: because it was designed as a church, lots of temporary walls have been rigged up over the years to house employees. The exterior of the building is also in desperate need of a paint job.

Last year, voters had the option of knocking the structure down and building a replica, but they voted that down. They also killed a plan that called for a renovation and modest expansion.

“The Rye voter doesn’t want to spend any money,” says Mae Bradshaw, chair of the town’s Historic District Commission, to no one’s surprise. “Like every other town, for sure.”

Bradshaw is excited about Town Meeting this year, though, because of a new option that’s coming up for a vote. A vacant TD Bank branch just down the road from Town Hall is on the market. The proposal she’s backing calls for the town buy that bank for $625,000, and move a few departments, like the Town Clerk, into that building.

From Bradshaw’s perspective, this solves the space issue and preserves the old structure. She’s no fan of the other option, to say nothing of John Loftus’s design for a new building.

A cramped office inside Rye Town Hall.
Credit Courtesy of Mae Bradshaw

“I don’t think it looks historic. I don’t think it does justice to the site,” she says. “It looks like a modern three story office building in the center of our historic district. That does not please me.”

Stuck in the middle of these competing plans are the ten or so town employees who spend their days inside Town Hall. Kim Reed, Planning and Zoning Administrator, actually spends her days inside a Town Hall hallway, because that’s where her office is.

“I definitely have no nostalgia” for this building, she says.

But that doesn’t mean she is eager to see the old Town Hall go.  

“You know, I don’t know. I like Mr. Loftus’s plans. I think it is really nice. At the same time, I am intrigued by the TD Bank, and so, I don’t know how I’ll vote yet.”

Reed, like the rest of the town, has until Tuesday to figure that out.