Town Hall: Then & Now

The Town Hall: Then and Now

In the early part of the 20th century a group of local citizens got together to find ways to better their community.  Discussions involved road building and maintenance, postal service, and the possibility of constructing a hall for social events.  The formation of the Lafayette Improvement Club (LIC) in 1911 helped to give the people of Lafayette the impetus needed to build the Town Hall. The project was given a big boost by Frank and Rosa Ghiglione who deeded the building site to the LIC as well as $200 for building costs.  Dances and gala suppers were being held on a regular basis to raise more funds needed for construction.  The Lafayette Improvement Corporation was formed and shares were sold for more revenue.

In 1914 the existing structure was built with the help of hired day labor and the men of Lafayette who worked evenings and weekends.  The opening of the building was celebrated with a Grand Opening Ball, a preview of weekly dances that would be held there for many years.  Early dances were attended every Saturday by hundreds of people throughout Contra Costa County and the Bay Area.  Trains which arrived at the end of School Street carried people traveling from Oakland, Walnut Creek, Martinez and Antioch.   The trains sometime waited at the station until 3 am until the dances were over to take the revelers home.  The price of admission to these dances included dinner and entertainment.  Food was prepared by the women of Lafayette, children helped with the decorations, and supplies were provided at cost by Robert McNeil, the owner of the Pioneer Store and one of the founding members of the LIC.  Entertainment came in the form of live music and a player piano.

Although the Town Hall has always been associated with entertainment, two of its primary functions were originally as a place where community events could be held and where money could be raised for improvements to Lafayette and surrounding areas.  In the early 1920’s, fundraisers were held to construct a Post Office in Lafayette.  During World War II, dances at the Town Hall raised money for the Red Cross and other relief efforts.  In the 1920’s and 30’s the building was also used as an auditorium for graduation ceremonies for Lafayette Grammar School.

The costs of maintaining the building and keeping it up to the safety standards for public use were high. Even with donations made by members of the community, by the 1930’s the Town Hall had fallen into disrepair.  Although the possibility of tearing down Town Hall was discussed, the LIC voted to remodel.  Money was raised for further renovations by recalling old stock issued since 1913, and issuing new stock.  Subscription sales and other fundraising brought in more money needed to lay new flooring, build a fire escape, install knotty pine interior finish to the building, and purchase two oil-burning heaters.

Over the next few years the Town Hall was called into service as a temporary library room and as temporary classrooms while new facilities were being built to accommodate the ever growing population.  The Board of Directors decided to make the building available to all civic organizations for the cost of monthly maintenance and utilities.

In 1941, the LIC was replaced by the Lafayette Improvement Association (LIA).  A new constitution and by-laws were adopted and the title to the Town Hall was transferred in 1944.  Although the Town Hall has been used occasionally throughout the years to show films, its use as a setting for theatrical performances greatly increased in the 1940’s.  The Lafayette Playshop, a division of a forerunner to the Lafayette Women’s Club, was the first theatrical troupe to perform regularly at the Town Hall. Their opening night was December 3, 1941, right before the attack on Pearl Harbor.

With the onset of the U.S. involvement in World War II, the Town Hall was designated as a Red Cross First Aid Station and a Refugee Collection Center.  In November of 1942, a fire in the building caused considerable damage to the Town Hall.  Materials for the necessary repairs had to be procured through the War Production Board Projects Requirement Plan.  The Town Hall was nearly completely repaired by April of 1943.

Various organizations used the Town Hall regularly throughout the 1940’s.  The Playshop, Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, and church groups all held events there.  Beginning in 1947 a group called the Straw Hat Review rented the building for four consecutive summers and held six performances weekly.

During the 1950’s, discussions began about rezoning the land surrounding the Town Hall for commercial purposes.  The group in favor of rezoning was headed by Russell Bruzzone, an heir of Frank and Rosa Ghiglione.  His intentions were to construct a medical/dental building nearby, and he believed that Moraga Road would become a major thoroughfare making commercial zoning appropriate for the area.  The LIA voted to keep zoning unchanged.

  In 1955 a group called the Dramateurs replaced the Straw Hatters as one of the main theatrical troupes to play at the Town Hall.  Their first performances were held “in the round” because the stage was determined to be unsafe.  First organized by housewives in Orinda, the Dramateurs spent thousands of dollars over the next decades on improvements to the building.  They signed a lease with the LIA in 1958.  In 1956, a group called the Laf-Frantics also began performing in the Town Hall.  This song and dance ensemble was started by the Suburban Women’s Club of Lafayette and the Junior Chamber of Commerce.  All proceeds from their performances were donated to various non-profit organizations, including the Town Hall and the Lafayette Community Center. Both the Dramateurs and the Laf-Frantics were to entertain area residents for many years to come.

In 1964, heirs to the Ghiglione and Bruzzone families began a legal dispute with the LIA over the ownership of the Town Hall.  The families believed that because the building was no longer being used primarily as a Town Hall, its ownership should revert back to them.  After the LIA presented evidence of the gift given half a century before by Frank and Rosa Ghiglione, it was allowed to retain title.

More problems were to arise later that year.  The State Fire Marshall, along with the Contra Costa Building Department, found the Town Hall to be structurally unsafe and it was shut down.  An inspection made by an independent engineering firm resulted in less dire findings – structurally the building was safe but in need of some improvements.  A successful “Save the Town Hall” fundraising drive was started with the combined efforts of the LIA and the Dramateurs.  By the following February, the building was ready again for public use.

The Laf-Frantics ended their run at the Town Hall in 1986, after thirty years.  In 1991, the Dramateurs were replaced by a group known as the Town Hall Theater Company.  One of the goals of this new group was to bring in younger audiences by presenting more modern theater, including somewhat controversial works such as M. Butterfly.  In the last three years, two Shellie Awards have been won by plays presented at the Town Hall.

From the beginning the Town Hall has served our community in countless ways – as a place where money could be raised for improvements to the city; by offering much needed extra space when local facilities were unable to keep up with rapid growth; and as a place where people could gather to be entertained by local talent.

 

 

 

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