BACKGROUND AND THE “MILLION DOLLAR GIFT”
Elected village president in 1894 and city mayor in 1895, Charles King presided over our transition from village to city. Our 1895 population was 9,897. Immigrants from southern and eastern Europe were finding their way to Little Falls; greater ethnic diversity and population growth followed.
From 1895 until the completion and occupancy of City Hall in 1918, Little Falls city government was dispersed at various rented locations in downtown Little Falls.
The very idea of a “city hall” had been just that, an idea or discussion, until 1914, when Little Falls philanthropic industrialist David H. Burrell made an offer that the city could not refuse.
Frank Shall was mayor on March 3, 1914 when Burrell offered the City of Little Falls a staggering sum – $50,000 – to build a city hall if the city could raise a duplicate total. Burrell later added an additional $10,000 to his gift. $50,000 in 1914 converts to a cool million in 2014 – quite an act of civic generosity!
A public referendum was approved 765-65, clearly, the community supported the construction of a centralized home for city government.
Off topic a bit, but as a valuable point of reference, Burrell also donated the land and funds for the construction of the YMCA which was completed and opened to the public in 1913. Burrell was Little Falls’ own Andrew Carnegie.
Securing the desired property on the southeast corner of Main and William Streets necessitated some legal maneuvering. There were a barn and animal hospital operated by a veterinarian, Dr. D. H. Rowe, occupying the desired site. Eventually, the buildings were condemned and the city took possession of the property on May 1, 1915. The Common Council paid Dr. Rowe $17,613.75 and $7,800.37 for the adjoining Lewis property.
THE CONSTRUCTION OF CITY HALL
World War I began in 1914; America entered the conflict on the side of our allies England and France on April 6, 1917. Sadly, 24 of the 676 Little Falls men who served in WW I perished in the conflict.
Construction of City Hall began in the spring of 1916, the cornerstone was put in place on October 7, 1916 and on May 31, 1918, the general public got its first official look at the completed granite and terra cotta structure. The October 7, 1916 Evening Times headline read:
“CITY HALL CORNERSTONE LAID THIS AFTERNOON – Fine Program of Exercises.”
Construction took just over two years. This was quite an accomplishment considering the many obstacles that had to be overcome.
The original contractor, George B. Willis & Co., Inc. of New York City, abandoned the contract early on. Local contractors Halliman and Snyder then became the primary construction firm and saw the project through to its completion. The architect was W. Neil Smith of New York City, the same man who had designed the Little Falls Masonic Temple which was completed in 1914. J.F. Leary Co. of Little Falls was awarded the plumbing and heating installation contracts.
There were cost overruns and cost saving design changes had to be made; the final price tag seems to have been $104,706.
Abram Zoller was city mayor during the entire construction project. Our 1915 census was 13,022. Between 1895 when Little Falls became a city and the 1918 completion of City Hall, our population grew quickly and the new three-story structure symbolized growth and progress.
City Hall’s Beaux Arts architectural design, combining ancient Greek and Roman forms with Renaissance influences, was very popular between 1895 and 1920 in the design of government buildings, railroad terminals, museums and courthouses.
Beaux Arts architecture exemplified America’s Gilded Age (1870’s-90’s) taste for lavish displays of wealth. In 1916, Little Falls was beginning to flex its growing small-town industrial strength. City Hall’s architectural design was a perfect fit for our 1916 community mindset.
CITY HALL BEGINS OPERATION
The May 18, 1918 Evening Times headline read: “STRONG VERDICT OF APPROVAL – Local People Highly Pleased With City Hall – Building Visited Yesterday By 4000 People.” The paper went on to report:
“If there was any adverse criticism it has not been noised about; that there were volumes said in its favor is the common personal experience.”
Of particular interest to the many visitors was the beautiful stained glass window reproducing Profile Rock on Moss Island. The window was a gift of the Abram Zoller family.
On May 17, 1918 the fire alarm system was moved to City Hall from the Sadler Building at the corner of Second and Albany Streets where both the fire and police departments had been located. Fire Chief Edward Cooney immediately took up temporary residence to maintain the system. The entire fire department moved in a week later.
Over the next few months, the city clerk, the city treasurer, the police department and the Board of Public Works took up occupancy in City Hall. The Common Council met for the first time in their new second floor chambers on December 23, 1918. The first order of business was to pay respect to D.H. Burrell whose generosity had literally changed the character and landscape of the city.
World War 1 ended on November 11, 1918; one can imagine that the returning soldiers must have been quite impressed with our handsome new City Hall that had been completed while they were at war.
Upon its completion, City Hall’s dome took its place, along with St. Mary’s Church steeple, as the two most prominent landmarks of the Little Falls skyline. Its eighty-five foot high dome with its colored glass windows was immediately visible from many points in the city. One favored vantage point is from upper Salisbury Street at sunset with the last rays of sunset streaming majestically through the dome’s colored windows.
CITY HALL THROUGH THE YEARS
THE LONG AND COONEY ERA
Following WW 1, Prohibition began in 1919 and the Roaring 20’s followed. The flapper era came to a screeching halt on October 29, 1929; the Stock Market crashed and the Great Depression ensued. FDR’s New Deal brought depression relief programs to millions, but another world war would draw hundreds of city residents into combat.
In between the two world wars, a surplus food distribution program provided food to the needy, in 1915 the city streets were paved, wintertime street plowing began in 1920 and, by 1929, the fire department had abandoned horse drawn wagons in favor of gasoline powered fire engines.
On July 26, 1923 Democratic Governor Alfred E. Smith visited Little Falls. The Evening Times reported:
“GOVERNOR SMITH WAS HERE FOR A BRIEF STOP – Called At Local City Hall Yesterday Afternoon.”
Mayor Cornelius Haley accompanied the Governor as the two dropped in on a meeting of the Board of Public Works.
Smith went on to an unsuccessful run for president in 1928; he was the first Catholic to do so. His candidacy paved the way for JFK to become the first Catholic president following his defeat of Richard Nixon in the 1960 presidential election.
City Hall is pictured in the background of the Main Street parade honoring the returning 1929-30 NYS championship high school basketball team which was coached by the legendary Wilbur Crisp.
Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected governor in 1929 and president in 1932. An interesting 1936 photo was taken of Republican presidential candidate Alf Landon sitting in an open topped car in front of City Hall. The visit did little good for Landon; the incumbent FDR carried both the city and the entire nation by a wide margin.
World War II began in 1939 and America was drawn in following the Day of Infamy; on December 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and the nation found itself fighting a two-theater world war. 1688 men and 69 women from Little Falls served in the armed forces. Hundreds of these service men and women were part of group pictures taken in front of City Hall before they went off to war.
Forty-three men and one woman would not return home to Little Falls from World War II. A memorial to their honor is inside the front door of City Hall. Another 131 men were wounded in action.
On August 14, 1945 the fire whistle in City Hall joined the factory whistles, church bells and car horns that wailed; the Japanese had surrendered, World War II was over. The July 4, 1946 welcome home celebration included an Eastern Park address by Governor Thomas Dewey and a huge parade followed. Dewey can be seen in a picture taken of the special parade review stand across from City Hall.
Readers can almost feel the emotional release that city residents felt at this historic moment. Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany had been defeated; democracy had prevailed over totalitarianism. Our military men and women had returned home. Indeed, “happy days were here again.”
Near the end of WW II a significant municipal milestone quietly passed marking our 50th anniversary since becoming a city in 1895.
During this period from 1918 through the 1940‘s, City Hall housed ten different mayors, but only one fire chief, Edward Cooney, and only one police chief, James “Dusty” Long. Their overlapping careers spanned these three decades and when they departed their City Hall offices – Long in 1940 and Cooney in 1947 – times were much different than when they had become chiefs. Both men left indelible imprints on the city that they so ably served for so many years.
Mayors who served during this era:
1916-1919 Abram Zoller
1920-21 Nelson Gilbert
1922-23 Cornelius Haley
1924 John Kearns resigned
1925 Dr. John Tanzer was appointed and served through 1925
1926-27 Joseph Casler
1928-31 Dr. John Tanzer
1932-35 Dr. Augustus Santry
1936-39 John B. McGuire
1940-43 Richard Conley
1944-47 Clifton Wagoner
POST-WORLD WAR II
DECLINING POPULATION AND A CHANGING CITY
As America’s foreign policy gears shifted in the late-1940’s from World War II to the Cold War, Little Falls’ industrial base began to decline along with many other northeast communities. Lower manufacturing costs in the south drew away many industries. Our 1940 population was 10,163.
The 1948 Presidential election brought both major party candidates to Little Falls. Incumbent Democrat Harry Truman’s “whistle stop” train tour stopped in Little Falls. The Evening Times headline on October 8, 1948 read:
“HUNDREDS STAND IN RAIN TO HEAR CHIEF EXECUTIVE.“
The Republican nominee, NYS Governor Thomas E. Dewey, also paid a campaign visit to Little Falls.
Dewey’s efforts went for naught as “give ‘em hell Harry” Truman prevailed in the presidential election after trailing badly in the pre-election polls – “the political upset of the century.”
Police Chief Francis “Coz” Reardon seems to have been cut out of the Dusty Long mold. Both men were no-nonsense rugged individuals who performed their duties with confidence and each had a great deal of community respect. Fire Chief Abe Swartz served with distinction from 1947-67 and Reardon from 1940-71.
The early 1950’s saw the end of the Korean War and the construction of the NYS Thruway. Five Little Falls residents died in America’s “forgotten war.“ In 1961 Little Falls carried out perhaps its most memorable celebration – our Sesquicentennial – marking 150 years since our 1811 incorporation as a village.
City Hall was where a number of long-lasting decisions were made during this era. The decisions to tear down the buildings on the south side of Main Street and build Shoppers Square, to construct a new city reservoir, the Francis Skinner municipal swimming pool, the Henry Pelzer municipal golf course and Rockton Plaza were all made by the Common Council in their second floor City Hall chambers.
One has to marvel both at confidence of the mayor and Common Council to plan these changes and at the ability of the taxpayers of this era, albeit with government assistance, to fund these community-defining municipal projects.
On November 22, 1963 President John F. Kennedy was assassinated and Lyndon Johnson became president. The Vietnam War was in its infancy; America began to lose its post-World War II innocence.
While running for the U.S. Senate, Robert Kennedy visited Little Falls on October 20, 1964; the Evening Times headline read:
“ENTHUSIASTIC THRONG GREETS KENNEDY DURING STOP HERE.”
The article continued: “Standing hatless in a steady drizzle, Kennedy spoke for five minutes from the rear of an open convertible in a 12 car motorcade that stopped in front of City Hall.” The Kennedy mystique had briefly touched Little Falls.
On April 4, 1968 Martin Luther King was assassinated and on June 5,1968 Bobby Kennedy was assassinated. The Vietnam War was raging at its worst – two Little Falls natives were killed in that conflict; the Nixon presidency and Watergate soon followed. America had completed its loss of innocence amidst the political and social turmoil of that time period.
Mayors who served during this era:
1948-49 John Ingersoll
1950-55 and 1964-65 Willard Topper
1956-63 John George
1966-87 Theodore Wind
1970’s – PRESENT
In 1966 Ted Wind took over the mayor’s office from Willard Topper; Wind went on to serve 28 years as mayor – from 1966-84, from 1985-87 and from 2000-08. During this time period, Mayor Wind was the face of city government.
Wind presided as City Hall turned fifty years old in 1968 and as Little Falls celebrated its Diamond Jubilee in 1970, marking seventy-five years since we had transitioned from village to city in 1895.
The Little Falls Thruway exit and Wind bridge were completed in the mid-1970’s amidst controversy over whether or not the new bridge should be anchored on the east end of Moss Island. The plans to renovate Vets Park – known historically as Girvan Square – were approved in City Hall. This led to the arrival of the Little Falls Mets in 1977. The golden era of professional baseball in Little Falls had begun.
Perhaps the most notorious person to ever enter City Hall did so on August 13, 1998. The serial killer Gary Evans was arraigned on the that day for the 1991 murder of Greg Jouben in his Burrell Building jewelry store. The next day, Evans jumped to his death off the Troy-Menands bridge as he attempted to escape from police custody.
Efforts to bring about the reconstruction of the municipal pool began in earnest when the Common Council approved a $321,000 bond in May 2009.
The pool had been closed for three years and, in early August 2009, the completely renovated pool and bathhouse reopened.
City Hall was also the starting point of the September 2010 “Envisioning Workshop” conducted by Synthesis Architects of Schenectady and organized and paid for by the citizens group Main Street First. The daylong program was attended by the Berke family, owners of Shoppers Square. The event proved to be the catalyst for the family’s decision to demolish the majority of Shoppers Square and build the Price Chopper supermarket in center city; the store opened on April 22, 2014.
In 2013, Mayor Robert Peters and his administration skillfully paved the way for Feldmeier’s, the former Cherry-Burrell’s, to significantly expand its manufacturing operations in Industrial Park.
Mayors who served during this era:
1987-88 Frederick Johnson appointed
1988-92 Michael Izzo
1992-96 Roger Stock
1996-2000 George C. Herbert
2000-2008 Theodore Wind
2008 – 2015 Robert Peters
2016 – Present Mark Blask
CITY HALL TODAY
CIVIC GENEROSITY NEEDED ONCE MORE
Present – City Hall is still a magnificent structure. First-time visitors sometimes stand in awe gazing up at the twin curving marble staircases rising from the front entry. City Hall remains the political and civic nerve center of the community with its current population of 4,912.
Closer examination can leave a different impression. The historic treasure is showing its age and a number of substantial repairs need to be undertaken.
Portions of the terra cotta exterior on the northeast portion of the structure have fallen off in recent years. Roof leaks have caused this exterior damage and also interior damage to the ceiling and north and east walls of the Common Council chambers. Many other repairs, both large and small, are long overdue.
As is so often the case of municipalities with declining tax bases and budgetary woes, finding the funds for costly capital improvements and repairs is close to impossible. Put simply, the City of Little Falls does not have the cash reserves to draw from to carry out these costly extensive repairs to City Hall.
We need help – grants, another act of philanthropic generosity – and a plan and the leadership to move forward with City Hall restoration.
Thus far, Preserve Our Past (POP) has the best track record for addressing the damage that City Hall has sustained. POP was instrumental in getting City Hall placed on the National Register of Historic Preservation in 2011. The group has also secured grant funding for an engineering study to inventory the damage.
We are in a race against the clock – future generations will judge us poorly if we fail to take the steps necessary to reverse the deterioration of our nearly one hundred year City Hall.
Perhaps a “second D.H. Burrell” or some combination of individuals with the resources to assist with these extensive repairs will step forward. 2018 is the 100th anniversary of City Hall – let us generate the community will and the resources needed to mark the occasion with an already underway effort to restore this city architectural treasure to its former grandeur.
Jeffrey Gressler is a member of the Little Falls Historical Society. This article was originally published on June 1, 2014.