Smart Growth for Vernon, CT
Vernon Town Hall’s 3rd floor restored to original grandeur

By Kym Soper
Journal Inquirer
Published: Tuesday, August 19, 2008 2:18 PM EDT

VERNON — For Mayor Jason L. McCoy, the third-floor renovation project is like history repeating itself: His grandfather, former mayor Frank McCoy, moved the town’s administrative offices from West Main Street to the Park Place Memorial Building during his term in the 1970s, and now the grandson is moving the operation upstairs to the Town Hall’s refurbished third floor.

“That’s just a cool thing,” McCoy said as he marveled at the restoration of historic columns, ornate arched windows, tin ceilings, and high-tech gear. “It feels like we’ve completed a cycle.”

After 10 months of frenzied construction, the $1.6 million reconstruction project is set for unveiling today in a ribbon-cutting ceremony prior to the Town Council meeting.

The mayor’s office, squared away in the rotunda, is flooded with natural light and a clear view of the Fox Hill Memorial Tower. It’s fully furnished and looking presidential, Robert Kleinhans a former councilman and Republican leader, said.

“It almost reminds you of the Oval Office,” he said with a laugh as McCoy tried different positions for his computer to reduce glare on the screen.

On Thursday the council chamber was bustling with activity, while furniture for the support staff in the outer atrium was due to arrive Monday.

A soft opening of sorts was held when U.S. Rep. Joseph D. Courtney, D-2nd District, hosted an informational meeting in the new Town Council chamber on the current housing crisis.

“It was a good chance to work out the bugs,” McCoy said, adding that only one microphone in the elaborate sound system failed.

Courtney, who planned to host a panel and audience of roughly 75 in the senior center before learning the new space was available, agreed.

“It was fabulous,” Courtney said afterward. “Everyone was very comfortable, the acoustics were great, and it was conducive to holding a large meeting.”

Five plasma screen televisions were being installed for Powerpoint demonstrations: one large screen high on the wall for the audience, three smaller monitors hanging on the lip of the speaker’s table facing the council, and another large screen in the lobby so people can see what’s happening in the chambers behind the frosted glass windows.

McCoy says he was able to save money on furniture, most of which was gently used and refinished, spending only $14,000 so far of the $75,000 appropriated by the council.

The bid for new audience chairs in the council chambers would have taken up the entire budget alone, he said. Instead, he bought 90 padded chairs from the General Electric.

While the upholstery on some is faded, it’s hardly noticeable when its surrounded by jaw-dropping restoration to the ceiling’s massive oak caps on the support columns. Over the years, the hand carved tassels and bunting had broken off. The construction supervisor’s uncle carved new pieces to match the broken ones, McCoy said. Once refinished, the work became seamless.

“It’s quite different and quite spectacular to see how it turned out,” State Rep. Claire Janowski, D-Vernon, said last week as she snapped pictures of the work.

Cherry colored wood doors, granite counters in the restrooms, historically correct colors of greens and mauves, up-lighting in the ceiling coves illuminating the intricate ceiling, all surround the space. Inside the council chambers two flags, American and state, hang on the wall behind the council tables while out near the elevator is a gallery of portraits of mayors dating from Thomas J. McCusker in 1965 to Joe Grabinski in 1999. Missing are Diane Wheelock, Ellen Marmer, and McCoy, the three most recent mayors.

Staff will have a small kitchenette and McCoy is considering adding an eating area in a loft to the rear of the massive open space.

The project has been years in the making, starting about eight years ago when visiting dignitaries commented on the broken windows.

Gov. M. Jodi Rell recalls sitting in a restaurant across the street talking about downtown revitalization with local officials when she saw the boarded up windows and thought, “that’s not the most charming redevelopment.”

Rell said if the town came up with a plan, the state would it them halfway. About $1.2 million in state grants from the Connecticut Commission on Culture and Tourism helped fund the project.

Designs were completed in 2003, and construction went out to bid last year, but only two developers responded, each with costly proposals of $1.7 million.

Branford developer A. Secondino was able to get his bid down to $1.4 million by eliminating a steel balcony and using smaller, individual air conditioners rather than the two large rooftop units originally planned.

But then problems with the mortar on the northeast peak near the large circular window cropped up and another $175,000 of town money was combined with an added $233,000 in state grants to shore up the wall.

Known as the Memorial Building, Town Hall was constructed in 1889 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It was built by Rockville residents to commemorate Civil War veterans from the community.

The grand opening and dedication ceremony, which Rell plans to attend, is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. today, prior to the Town Council’s inaugural meeting in its new chambers.

Residents can stop by to view the renovations any time after Aug. 19 from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Friday.

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