Restoring Provincetown's 'Heartbeat'

A Cape Cod town hall sparkles again after a two-year preservation effort

In March 2008, officials in Provincetown, Mass., received grim news about the state of the 1886 town hall. The building was so structurally compromised that assessors identified only two options: repair it by the end of the year or vacate it promptly.

It didn't take much to convince town officials to spring into action. This 284-year-old community on the tip of Cape Cod wears its history proudly. The Pilgrims sailed the Mayflower into Provincetown Harbor in 1620 and stayed for five weeks while drafting the Mayflower Compact. In the 19th century, Provincetown was a thriving maritime center, and a century later, the town became a magnet for writers, painters, and aspiring actors.

"Town Hall is the heartbeat of this historic town, and we needed to get it fixed," says Sharon Lynn, the town manager. So Provincetown officials voted unanimously to repair and upgrade the building, including the mechanical, electrical, and fire protection systems. But they didn't stop there. What started as a modest program to stabilize the 22,000-square-foot building quickly became a comprehensive restoration.

After employees relocated to a cluster of trailers on the outskirts of town, McGinley Kalsow & Associates architects began work on a two-year, $6.5 million effort. First they addressed exterior issues, repairing the roof and structural columns, as well as decades of water damage hidden behind clapboards. The original double-hung windows were also restored, and storm windows added to increase energy efficiency. A paint analysis conducted by Boston-based architectural conservator Sara Chase revealed that the building, which stands in a National Register-listed district, had once been painted in a distinctive color scheme.

"We told the town that it cost no more money to buy colored paint than white paint, and that made a huge difference in how the project was perceived," says Wendall Kalsow, a principal with McGinley Kalsow. "It was an immediate, dramatic change."

After the first phase of work was completed in 2009, crews moved inside, repairing ductwork and installing the building's first central air conditioning system. The ground floor, originally a police station, was completely overhauled, turning cramped quarters used primarily for storage into office space for the community development department. Crews scraped paint from the exposed brick walls and removed partitions from the original eight-by-six-foot jail cells while preserving bars and arched doorways.

With a $55,000 grant from the state's Preservation Projects Fund matched by the town, workers also restored what Kalsow calls the "frosting on the cake"—the auditorium, which had been closed to the public. Its elegant coffered ceiling, chandelier, and sconces had been removed in the 1950s, but other elements, such as wood pilasters and a fine balcony balustrade, remained intact.

Using a 1890s photo, Newstamp Lighting, a historic lighting fixtures company, re-created the chandelier and sconces, and carpenters from Green & Robinson, a contracting company specializing in historic preservation, restored the ceiling. The walls were then repainted in the Victorian color scheme revealed by paint analysis.

More than 700 people attended a reopening ceremony last November and applauded a restoration that has since won the prestigious 2011 Massachusetts Historical Commission Preservation Award.

"We could have just made the necessary repairs and it would have been fine, but we knew really good preservation work could be done," Kalsow says. "Structural repairs are important, but they just don't mobilize the civic spirit very much."

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