Norwich City Hall a backdrop for a few Hollywood movies
The grandeur of the French Second Empire-style Norwich City Hall, built between 1870 and 1873, is a constant reminder of the city’s gilded age and prominent place in history.
Situated between Union Street and Broadway, this extravagant, five-story brick building boasts ornate trim, dormer windows and a slate mansard roof with a corner tower topped with a clock, belfry and bulbous-turned finial. It also features elaborate metal railings and cast iron stairs that were state of the art at the time, City Clerk Betsy Barrett said.
The bricks from Philadelphia and the decorative iron from Aetna Ironworks of New York City were transported by ship to Norwich’s waterfront, she said, which was very active at the time.
From there, the supplies were brought to the site by horse and buggy.
“You’re kind of in awe looking around every day to see the magnificentness of what is here and how it came,” Barrett said. “Remember, no cranes, no bucket loaders. It was ropes, boards and a pail to bring the brick up.”
After the old wooden city hall at the corner of Church and Court streets was destroyed by fire in April 1865, Norwich City Historian Dale Plummer said the new structure was built at its current location. It cost $324,732 to construct, according to the book “Victorian Norwich” by author and former Norwich Mayor Arthur Lester Lathrop.
Initially, Norwich City Hall housed numerous courts, offices, the police department and jail cells.
“The first on-duty death was Lt. William Gordon,” Barrett said.
He died after being struck several times with a cuspidor (spittoon), she said, during “a violent struggle with a prisoner who attempted to escape the jail cell.”
Gordon died on July 7, 1881. The Norwich Police Department moved to Union Street in 1885, Barrett said, and then to its current location in 1977 at 70 Thames St.
About a year and a half ago, an attorney came into city hall and dropped off a cuspidor that he said had been in an evidence file for many years, said Jacquie Barbarossa, executive assistant to Norwich City Manager John L. Salomone. He told her, “Rumor has it that it was confiscated, that someone threw it at someone.”
The round, heavy object now sits in the display case with the scale, weights and measures (which were used to tax individuals purchasing wheat, flour and other foods and staples). The only question: Is it old enough to be the object that killed Lt. Gordon?”
By about 1909, an addition designed by Cudworth & Woodworth was added to the rear of city hall. In 1993, a $7 million renovation project was completed, and repairs to windows and the clock tower were made in 1995.
Today, the building is home to city and state offices, probate court and the probation department. The old Superior Court on the third floor is utilized for meetings and swearing-in ceremonies.
Two-thirds of the building is owned by Norwich and the other one-third by the state.
Norwich City Hall’s interior stateliness features high ceilings, elaborate pressed metal ceilings and walls, plaster ceiling medallions, 9-foot doors, original hardware, nine vaults, yellow pine flooring and black walnut wood finishes. Furniture was supplied by Nathan Gilbert Manufacturers of Norwich.
“The judge’s benches were made of logs brought to Norwich from New York by boat,” Barrett said. “They sawed the boards and dried them for a year before using them.”
Additionally, much of the elegant lighting that hangs throughout the building used to be roped, she explained, so they could be lowered to add oil or kerosene, depending on the era. The grooved handrails were also created by craftsmen with hand tools.
“I feel like I’m in a movie like ‘Gone with the Wind’ when I walk down the stairs,” said Barbarossa, theatrically tossing her hair back.
City Historian Plummer said, “The town was prospering. It had the money, the wherewithal to show off its prosperity in building a new city hall that reflected that Norwich was a progressive, happening place where money was being made, and they weren’t ashamed to show that.”
Much of the prosperity came from manufacturing, Plummer said, but also from being an entrepot, where goods would be brought in primarily by ship, barge, or steamboat up the Thames River. “So raw materials like cotton and wool would be brought up and other goods as well, metals and so forth,” Plummer said. “And then those would be transshipped onto rail cars, taking those raw materials up to the various mills along what we now call the Quinebaug/Shetucket Corrridor.”
Many of the factory owners lived on Washington Street and Broadway, he added.
Norwich’s historical significance goes beyond its wealthy inhabitants. It was known and well respected on the national stage. In 1860, candidate Abraham Lincoln visited Norwich and the old city hall to campaign for Governor William Buckingham and himself. “They made their state headquarters down at the Wauregan (Hotel) and put this flag out,” Barrett said pointing to a banner of a clean-shaven Lincoln (that the city purchased with donations and then restored).
Norwich resident Samuel Huntington “was a signor of the Declaration of Independence and actually the first president of the United States of America,” Barrett said.
Born in Franklin, Lafayette Foster also served as a Norwich mayor and senator, as well as acting vice president for two years following the assassination of President Lincoln.
Additionally, Norwich was a key manufacturer of arms during the Civil War, Barrett said.
“This city has weathered a lot of storms and it will weather a lot more. It’s a beautiful city with one of the prettiest city halls that I’ve ever seen,” said Bonnie Cuprak, executive assistant to Norwich Mayor Peter Nystrom.
Perhaps that’s why Hollywood periodically seeks out Norwich City Hall as a movie setting. It was featured in “Everybody Wins” with Debra Winger and Nick Nolte in 1990, “Killer” with Paul Wesley, Kaley Cuoco and Gloria Votsis in 2008 and “Holiday for Heroes” with Melissa Claire Egan and Marc Blucas in 2019.
“It’s a wonderful building to work in. There are so many treasures and different things you see each time you look around,” Barrett said.
Maintaining Norwich City Hall is not hard, said Facility and Grounds Manager John Johnson, who oversees a nine-member crew that maintains numerous buildings around the city. The challenging aspect to city hall, he said, are the upgrades: retrofitting countertops, plumbing, electricity, and a sprinkler system.
“So we just try to do it to the best of our ability and keep going,” he said.
Cuprak said she senses “a long-ago Norwich” every time she gets off the elevator and looks at the scale. However, when she and staff give tours with children “and they all sit up on the dais (raised platform in council chambers),” she said, “I look at them and I see future mayors, future aldermen and future leaders of the city and it’s like, ‘Yes!’”
Jan Tormay, a former longtime Norwich resident, now lives in Westerly.
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