Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Exeter's Town Office Building

by Barbara Rimkunas
This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, February 3, 2012.

Exeter’s town office building began its life working for the county. In 1890, the Rockingham County Commissioners determined that the old county record building, which stood on the site of the current Exeter Historical Society on Front Street, was no longer large enough or modern enough to meet its needs. “If the objectors will next visit the old county building,” the Exeter News-Letter urged, “they will find the structure damp and cellarless and the back rooms supported by huge piers which cannot be removed without tumbling the entire structure down.” Rather than update the old building, the decision was made to build something new.

The decision to launch a building project wasn’t taken lightly. Rockingham County erected three new county buildings in the early 1890s - the county records building in Exeter and a new courthouse and jail in Portsmouth. There was something of a building boom going on in Exeter at the time as well. The west end of town was being developed for housing by Frank Swallow & Herbert Dunn. The Exeter Brass Works was expanding and the Boot and Shoe Company also had plans to add an addition. On Park Street, the town was erecting a new iron railroad bridge to allow traffic to move even when a train was entering or leaving town.

A lot for the new building was chosen on Front Street in the town square across from the Exeter Town Hall. The plans were published in the News-Letter in early May of 1891. “For the county offices in Exeter, plans submitted by Fox & Gale, Boston architects have this week been received by the county commissioners.” Adding a bit of local pride, the paper also noted that the plans “are the work of the junior partner, Mr. Edwards J. Gale, of Exeter.” The design created a building with multiple vaults for fireproof storage of records. The opening hallway and interior spaces were of “hard wood selected for good color and grain.” The exterior of the building was designed in a colonial style, “the material used in the new building will be somewhat new in this town, for although the exterior is largely of brick, it is of a peculiar kind and laid in an unusual way. All the trimmings, sills and lintels are to be of buff Indiana limestone and the base course Concord granite.” Construction began in the spring of 1891 and by the following August, the Rockingham County Records and Probate offices were ready to move in.

For the next seventy years, the county office building in the downtown of Exeter was a regular stopping point for those needing records. A small renovation of the building in 1927 enlarged its footprint bit, but it remained essentially the same building it had been when it was erected.

By 1964, the county had decided it needed to consolidate all its services into one place. A new complex, on Hampton Road and named the Rockingham County Administration and Justice Building, was proposed. The records and probate building on Front Street would no longer be needed. At the same time, the town of Exeter had long needed a larger town office. The old Town Hall was crammed with the police department, the selectmen, town clerk, town manager, tax collector and water department all essentially on top of one another. The logical and most practical solution was to purchase the county records building to serve as the town offices.

But nothing is ever simple when it comes to New England politics. There were enough people in town who felt that the building (appraised at $55,000) was too expensive and the old office space was serving well enough. Although the vote in 1964 was 1,015 to 596 in favor of purchasing the building, it failed to gain a two-thirds majority to pass. The appropriation finally passed the following year after a second session of town meeting had to be held. Although there was some opposition, the town manager, Theodore Nowak, urged acceptance of the article and it passed 699 to 13.

The purchase of the county building was one of many services Ted Nowak performed for the town. He served as town manager from 1963 to 1967 but had been part of Exeter municipal government during the previous 20 years acting as supervisor of the town checklist of voters, budget committees, chairman of the town sewer study committee and various school building committees. After his death in 1967, the town dedicated the meeting room of the town office to him. Today the various committees and town selectmen still meet in the Nowak Room. A plaque was dedicated in his honor in 1971, which reads: “Dedicated to Theodore A. Nowak, Town Manager, 1963-1967. In grateful recognition for dedicated and unselfish service to the Town of Exeter, New Hampshire.”

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