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Town hall in Newtown seeks new life as cultural center

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Newtown’s venerable Edmond Town Hall, long a hub of activity from its nearly eight decades as the seat of town government to hosting second-run movies, birthday parties and athletes in its theater, gym and ornate rooms, is reinventing itself once more as a cultural destination to maintain its cachet as the “center” of a town that has no central business district.

“There is a ton of potential for us,” said Sheila Torres, operations manager at Edmond Town Hall, a quasi-public organization managed by a six-member board “and we’re determined to keep moving forward. This has been such an important building for so many years, and not just to Newtown residents. I hear from people in neighboring towns like Brookfield and Trumbull all the time, saying they wish their towns had something like this.”

edmond-facade-2Built in 1930 with funds provided by the town’s renowned patron, Mary Hawley, and named for her maternal great-grandfather William Edmond, the site at 45 Main St. was home to Newtown’s government until 2009, when it moved to new facilities at Fairfield Hills, once the campus of Fairfield Hills Hospital, a psychiatric facility that closed in 1995. Newtown continues to own the town hall.

Torres said the challenge for Edmond Town Hall is to modernize while retaining its historical value to the area. She noted that earlier this year its original pair of 1929 Bigelow two-pass steamship boilers were replaced by a modern boiler, at a cost of nearly $400,000, provided under Newtown’s capital improvement plan.

Margot Hall, chairman of the site’s board of managers, said, “We’re constantly doing renovations due to the age of the building. Large-scale improvements to attract business and visitors and all that good stuff is fine, but whenever repairs are needed, that comes first.”

While the building’s management continues to rent its 5,000-square-foot basement gymnasium and 1,500-square-foot upstairs Alexandria Room – patterned after the like-named room in New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art – for parties, fundraisers and other functions, it’s also making a more concerted effort at expanding its program to become a cultural resource for the area.

Such activities are centered on the 5,000-square-foot, 500-seat movie theater, which usually shows films shortly before their home video release and also screens classics like “Rear Window” and “The African Queen” one Sunday each month. Ticket prices recently increased from the 1996-vintage rate of $2 per person to $3, “which isn’t bad for 20 years,” Torres said.

The theater also includes a large stage that in the past has accommodated local productions of “Les Misérables” and “Thoroughly Modern Millie” as well as performances by classical quartets, jazz combos and rock ensembles like The Autumn Defense, featuring members of alt-rock favorites Wilco and folk rockers Hiss Golden Messenger.

Dressing rooms, dance floors, a health club and onsite kitchen are also available. Tenants at the building include the Lathrop School of Dance and the Newtown Chamber of Commerce, while the Newtown Bridge Club, whose members are drawn from around the county, meets there four times a week.

Continuing its holiday events this month, Edmond Town Hall on Dec. 12 will host a concert, “Echoes of Sinatra,” which traces the crooner’s life story through live performances of his signature material, with proceeds to benefit the site’s restoration fund. The 1954 film musical classic “White Christmas” will be screened there on Dec. 18.

Edmond Town Hall is a publicly owned building operated by its board of managers. But since Newtown government moved to Fairfield Hills, “They’ve been slowly weaning us off,” Torres said.  The town had been paying $150,000 annual rent to the board of managers, revenue that has been sorely missed.

The challenge now is to produce income from what’s on hand. The Alexandria Room is available for rent at rates between $265 to $450, while the gym charges $30 per hour or a $300 flat fee for six-hour events and $600 for day-long affairs. The town also is still helping out, Torres said, to the tune of about $35,000 last year.

Torres said she’s confident that local residents’ fondness for the facility ultimately will win the day.

“Now it’s time for us to do it on our own, and I’m confident that we will,” she said. “This is such a beloved place, and if we can do it right – make it attractive to others while keeping the nostalgia factor – there’s no reason we can’t keep going on.”

 

 

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