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A grand old hall awaits new honor

Stetson Hall has been nominated for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places. Stetson Hall has been nominated for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places. (Barry Chin/Globe Staff)
By Christine Legere
Globe Correspondent / October 2, 2011

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A stately Greek Revival building that served as the seat of local government in Randolph for more than 150 years is one of seven nominated statewide by the Massachusetts Historical Commission for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places.

Town officials welcomed Stetson Hall’s nomination, which came as no surprise, as it had received a preservation award from the commission last year following a $4.5 million restoration. The building now houses office space for lease on its main level, while its assembly hall can be booked for functions and serves as a venue for art shows and community theater performances.

“There’s no question the building is the hallmark of our community,’’ said Brian Howard, the town clerk and chairman of Randolph’s Community Preservation Committee. “Even former residents who come back to town say once you get to the North Main Street area, you see the great white building on the hill and you know you are home. It overlooks the entire community.’’

Amasa Stetson, a Randolph native, state senator, and affluent Boston boot manufacturer, donated the money to have the building constructed on the town’s highest hill, at the junction of Union and South Main streets, in 1842. Stetson said he was donating it to “the people of Randolph for their use and enjoyment and the conduct of public business.’’

The building, with Greek columns adorning its façade, immediately became the center of community activity, according to Henry Cooke IV, Randolph Historical Commission chairman. It served as Town Hall from 1843 to 1995, and Town Meetings were held in the upstairs assembly hall until 1954, when a new high school auditorium offered more space for the community’s growing population.

“Stetson Hall also housed Stetson Academy on the first level, which was a boys’ school,’’ Cooke said. The Boston businessman had set up an endowment to cover the school’s expenses, and “said girls could be accepted if the town invested some money, so in 1852, it became a school for boys and girls,’’ Cooke said. It operated until shortly after the turn of the century.

The building’s upstairs hall also has had an interesting history, stretching far beyond the business of local government. Balls and theatrical performances took place there regularly, along with lectures featuring famous speakers. Mark Twain spoke in the hall in October 1872.

“One of my personal goals is to have Hal Holbrook, who has portrayed Mark Twain, speak from that very stage,’’ Cooke said.

The assembly hall saw even more varied use in the 20th century. From 1920 to 1938, it served as the town’s first movie theater. Attendees could purchase a ticket for a movie and a dance. “There was a projection screen in the front and a projection booth in back,’’ Cooke said. Those features were preserved during the recent building restoration.

In the 1940s, the hall was used as a practice basketball court by high school players, while Stetson’s basement is said to have housed a shooting range at one point in its history.

Once the town offices moved out in 1995, a reuse committee was charged with producing a plan for the hall. What ensued was a $4.5 million renovation and restoration, done with state, federal, and local contributions, that stretched from 1996 to 2009.

Residents and businesses all pitched in to the effort. “A half-million of that was ‘sweat equity,’ involving the donated goods and services,’’ Cooke said.

Howard said the town’s support in adopting the Community Preservation Act in 2005 was most probably attributable to local interest in restoring the hall.

“I think that’s the main reason it passed,’’ he said. “Stetson Hall is the most historic building in the town of Randolph.’’

The building received a 2010 Massachusetts Historical Commission Preservation Award for the restoration.

Howard said the town’s final Town Meeting, in the fall of 2009, was held in the building’s assembly room. The town then switched to a Town Council form of government.

“It was kind of amazing to think we were holding a final Town Meeting in the room where we had held most of the town meetings in Randolph’s history,’’ Howard said.

If Stetson Hall makes the National Register, it will join three other local sites: the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Ponkapoag Camp, which features huts dating back to the 1920s; the Jonathan Belcher House; and the Gill Farm archeological district, where exploration revealed vestiges of several Native American campsites.

While the National Park Service will have the final say on Stetson Hall, a state Historical Commission spokesman said National Register inclusion is fairly certain once a property has secured state endorsement.

“I’ve never heard of them kicking any of our nominations back,’’ said Brian McNiff, adding that the federal agency generally publishes its decision within about 45 days of nomination.

The National Register of Historic Places was established in 1966. In Massachusetts, more than 70,000 properties are listed.

Christine Legere can be reached at christinelegere@yahoo.com.