Editor's Note: The following was compiled in August 2010 by NHS Past President Priscilla Crawford. Reprinted here as originally written, with her permission.
The Naples Memorial Town Hall is a unique and historic building. It is one of only two buildings in New York built as a memorial to those who served in the Civil War. Other towns and villages erected statues or monuments. It has been used in recent years during the Grape Festival and as the focal point of the Memorial Day Speeches and Light Up Naples night, but it has a rich history. You may be wondering what is happening with our beautiful old Town Hall and also about its past. Here is an article taken from the Bicentennial Naples Record published January 1, 1976. Other sources were also consulted including "The Old Naples Town Hall" by Andy Harrington and an article by Kathy Riesenberger for a grant proposal.
"The people of Naples went all out to support the Union effort during the Civil War. Before the war ended, 225 men had served in the armed forces. This patriotic spirit and willingness to serve was unsurpassed by any community in Ontario County.
At the end of the war this spirit was channeled into a constructive effort; the building of a memorial for the soldiers who had served in the war.
Town meetings were held. Public opinion was heavily in favor of "remembering our boys." So by a vote of 250 to 30, residents of Naples approved [to raise] tax funds to build a Memorial Town Hall. At first $8,000 was raised; then $5,500 was raised through taxes to cover unforeseen expenses.
The site for the building was decided when James and Margaret Monier sold their "circus lot" to the town for $5,000. Things happened rapidly after the Main Street site was purchased. Seymour H. Sutton, a Naples grocer and justice of the peace, made the building design. E.W. Buck of Naples was awarded the building contract. Fred P. Byington of Naples dug the cellar. Charles Dunton of Naples made the bricks at his yard on the Middlesex Road. The roof slates were brought by [steam] boat from Canandaigua to [Woodville]. Progress on the memorial hall was rapid considering the lack of modern construction material i n 1872. Buck had the cellar dug by May 4th and the masons were putting up the brick on June I. The [joists for the upper and lower floors and the walls and] window frames were installed in the second story on June 29th. The roof was started on September 4th and the bell was installed and ringing on September 29th.
It didn't take long to put the hall to use. The Naples Fair and Grape Festival held its annual show there on October I0th and 11th, 1872. Formal dedication of the building took place on November I6, 1872.
After its completion and until World War II, the hall was the center of social and recreational activity in Naples. The first recorded dance was held there on July 4, 1973 with admission set at $2 per couple. [The dance was given by Myron H. Sutton, C.S. Jaqua, and E.M. Benson.] (There is a stage and large dance floor on the second floor of the building.)
During its early use, the memorial hall housed many live shows. Visiting performers included Jack Carner, a comedian, Mose Case, a guitarist and Fred Helcker, a pianist.
In 1889 June and Julia Lyon with the assistance of Mrs. Carrie Gross presented a cantata in the hall. Cultural life had reached a peak in Naples. In 1910 the DeRue Brothers Minstrels played to packed houses.
The park that surrounds the hall got its share of action, too. The Kick-a-Poo Indian Shows with their Indian herb remedies and magic healing rattlesnake oil got a big play from the locals.
The way memorial hall was used shifted in the early l900's. Frequently, band concerts were held there and the building was used for Naples High School basketball games and school activities. (There was no gym then in the High School.) Many Naples residents can remember playing basketball on one of the smallest courts in the county. One had to be clever to avoid hitting one of the stoves that were used to heat the hall. Or, in case of a fast break, it was not uncommon for a dribbler to find himself down on the first floor after having slid down the huge stairwell that was located on the east end of the basketball court. Those same players will remember also that the friendly hall caretaker, Orey Dean, hated basketball with every chew of his tobacco. And, too, the hall took on a few athletic odors as there were no showers to eliminate the perspiration of a hotly contested game. The building of the new centralized school in the late l 930's doomed the recreational era of the memorial hall. After the centralized school was completed, most of the activities that were held in the hall were moved to the new facilities across the street. After 1942 Naples Memorial Town Hall was seldom used.
In 1947 the Naples Chamber of Commerce was formed to improve the business activity in Naples. The chamber's principal goal was to convert the seldom-used memorial hall into an industrial site.
A hot controversy raged over this proposition for nearly a year. Those opposed to the industrial conversion plan based their arguments on the fact that the building was constructed to preserve the memories of our war dead. They also said the building was better suited for a community center than an industry. Those in favor the plan told of the sad economic plight of Naples; they said the dead would be better honored with a living memorial humming to the noise of machines rather than rats.
The town fathers called for a public vote on April 2, 1947. The result was an approval by a 501 to 69 vote, to sell the building to the Naples Chamber of Commerce for $1,500. This accomplished, the chamber formed a group called Neapolitan, Inc., which leased the building to the Carpenter Shoe Company. Due to the death of an owner, the shoe business operated less than a year. Memorial Hall then traveled through a maze of ownerships. Bristol Cabinet Corporation made cherry furniture there for a while.
When the firm ran into money problems, Security Trust purchased the building on September 8, 1958 for $5.000. Since 195 ownership of Naples Memorial Town Hall has gone to Widmer's Wine Cellars, to the Naples Central School District, and finally in 1972 back to the Town of Naples. [A trust was set up by Widmer 's in 1947 and Walter L. and George L. Todd, controlling stockholders in Widmer's, gave it to the school on October 23, 1963. The building was used for storage, containing an estimated 8,000 square feet of space. In 1971 The Community Action Committee looked into the possibility of rebuilding it. The estimated cost was $88,600.]
The Town of Naples reacquired the building in 1972. In 1994 an application was sent to the NY State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. The Memorial Town Hall was awarded historic site status in 1995(?). Following that status change the building was eligible for grant money. The money was applied for and received and was used to repair the roof. Since that time little has been done to preserve or use the structure as the cost of upgrading the handicapped accessibility, bathrooms/plumbing, electrical wiring, and heating system has seemed too great a burden for the public through the usual means of taxation.
The building that was created out of a flurry of patriotic spirit after the Civil War now stands as a graceful landmark to the changing needs and time of a small community. Naples ' memorial hall has housed concerts, fairs, speeches, basketball games, dances, balls, [plays] and almost everything imaginable. It now houses memories."
[This is the end of the Record article.]
A school essay done in Bob Vierhile's English class around 1971 by Andy Harrington has this to add:
"The Town Hall, as it stands now, is a symbol of the lack of economic and social activity in Naples.
Something should be done with it. If anyone has the civic pride or the money to try to revive Naples as a thriving community, the Town Hall would be the ideal place to start."
Recently the advent of the wind generators has drawn interest again to the Memorial Town Hall. First Wind (formerly UPC Wind) was mandated by the NY State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation to offer mitigation money to any communities with historic sites within 5 miles of the generators. This supposedly offsets any marring done by the impact of the generators. The sum agreed to by First Wind and the NY State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation (NYSOPRHP) for Naples was $50,000. This money has been received, and it is being used in the initial phase of a renovation process for the Memorial Town Hall. (The project had to be of historic value, nominated by the Naples Historical Society, agreed to by the Town Board and approved by NYSOPRHP.) At this time of August 2010, a land survey has been made by Jeremy Years. Dick Randall and Shanna Williams have applied their architectural expertise, and have given us some concept ideas as well as three options for bathroom placement in the building. (Dick has donated his time.) An electrical schematic has been created and we will begin the electrical upgrade when the town completes the bidding process. The renovation of the bathrooms will also be completed this year. The improvements to the electrical system and bathrooms were imperative if we were to continue using the Memorial Town Hall as the hub for the festivals. We can use some of the mitigation money to hire a grant writer, but we would love the community to get involved.
Perhaps some of you may have the ability to help to restore this building as community center and museum. The time has come for a renaissance of this important part of Naples history and future. If you are interested in helping, please contact us at PO Box 489, Naples, NY 14512.