Central Hall in Dover-Foxcroft: A History
by Mary Annis
In 1880 discussions began as the town realized the necessity of a new auditorium. This was brought about because of the added population in town and outgrowing Mayo’s Hall, which occupied the second floor of what is now True Value on the corner of Union Square and South Street. Editors of the Piscataquis Observer, Edes and Barrows, stated “We can build a hall to which we shall be pleased to invite friends and strangers, let us be about it!”. The needed funds came primarily from subscribers who had once indicated they would put forth the needed funds.
Much discussion and debate ensued with the townspeople as to the location of the building. It was decided to purchase land next to the Methodist Church and erect the hall there. That location seemed to satisfy all. The location now assured and over $5,000 subscribed, a meeting of the stockholders and subscribers was called at the end of April and a building committee named. Three of the most prominent citizens of Dover were chosen: Dr. E. A. Thompson (donor of the library), A. G. Blethen (owner of the Blethen House across the street from the proposed building) and F. W. Gifford (store owner in Merrick Square). The members of the building committee were hard workers. Meeting in April, the plans then drawn, the foundation for Central Hall was laid on July 21st, 1881.
From the Piscataquis Observer, Jan 12, 1882 – “Work is progressing so rapidly on Central Hall, that, although it is not yet completed, we feel warranted in giving our readers some description of its general appearance and good qualities. It is pleasantly situated upon the northerly side of Main Street, in Dover, within a few feet of the Methodist church edifice, near the Court House, and directly opposite the Blethen House. The building being eighty-seven feet long by forty-six feet front, two story, in appearance (one high story and basement) with Mansard roof, well slated, tower in front rising from the foundation, surmounted by flag-staff and ball, has a very substantial and imposing appearance, while its general architecture, style of windows, large balcony over front entrance, with balustrade, brackets, modillions and finish covered with a well selected paint, of a darker tint that the ground work of the building, give it an inviting and pleasing air, and the passer-by does not hesitate in pronouncing it by far the best looking building in the county.
The people of this center have long felt the great need of just such a building as this for large gatherings and first class entertainments, and now that they are so soon to enjoy its benefits one of the most natural questions asked by the public may be, is it entirely safe for the political gathering and mass meetings of different kinds which may convene at this centre of the county from time to time? Such a question would not for a moment be raised by one who had seen it in process of building.
The building when completed will not cost the Central Hall Company much less than ten thousand dollars. Its construction has been under the charge of L. L. Parsons, Esq. of Waterville, who has had large experience in building and remodeling public buildings in Boston and vicinity, being himself an architect as well as builder, and the thorough and workmanlike manner in which this edifice has been reared fully sustains his already excellent reputation. The Directors of the Company were also fortunate in selecting the members of their building committee, Mssrs. F. W. Gifford, E. A. Thompson and A. G. Blethen, and great credit is due to them, especially to their chairman, F. W. Gifford, for the noble structure which adds so much to the already beautiful village of Dover. We congratulate the citizens of Dover on having such a hall, and may the public enterprise which has of late manifested itself so clearly continue to enlarge and enhance in value the shire town of the county, holding it in name and in fact still Queen of the Piscataquis Valley.”
Central Hall was now complete and town held a grand opening fair for three nights – March 7, 8 and 9 of 1882.
From the Piscataquis Observer, March 9, 1882 “The fair for the benefit of the new hall just completed in this town, opened Tuesday evening. Every arrangement had been made to make it a complete success, and the committees were not disappointed this evening. An immense audience was present, nearly eight hundred tickets being sold the first evening. The Hall is perfect in its design and thorough in its finish. The lace curtains hanging from the gallery, partially concealing the tables within, gave it a very artistic appearance. The tables beneath the gallery on either side of the hall were well laden with the handiwork wrought by the deft fingers of the ladies of our villages, and were in themselves wonders of beauty, each one being a distinctive feature such as the “Art Table”, which included almost everything which that work implies, “China Table,” “Children’s Clothing Table”, on which were many beautiful things, “Doll Table” over which the children all went into raptures, “Apron and Tidy Table”, and “Variety Table”, speaking both of time and patience, and all received much attention.
The music, this evening, was furnished by Taylor’s Orchestra, which was very fine. Mr. J. H. Taylor played a cornet solo, which created much applause. The Farce, “Box and Cox”, constituted the stage performance of the evening. Mr. Sampson and Mr. Paine did themselves much credit in the characters of Box and Cox, while the acting of Miss Anna Genthner, as Mrs. Bouncer, was fully up to the standard. At the close of the entertainment, a beautiful evergreen tree, prettily trimmed with egg-shells, from which hung pendants of beads, was exhibited upon the stage.
The great dedication ball which will come off at Central Hall, next Tuesday evening, will be of considerable interest to the dancing public. It is to be given under the auspices of Douty Guards, Co. F, of this town and everything is being done to make it the grandest ball ever given in this section. Andrew’s well known Orchestra of nine pieces, will furnish the music and give a grand concert before the dance begins. Our citizens always appreciate Andrew’s music, and this occasion will afford them a rare and rich treat. Tickets to dance $1.25; gallery tickets, gents 35 cents; ladies 25 cents. Supper 50 cents per couple.”
Over the years, Central Hall has undergone several structural changes. In July of 1892, 14 feet was added to the back of the Hall, which enlarged the stage, a stairway added to the back to help get scenery upstairs and electric lights installed. Better heating was added to the stage, along with new outer doors in 1905. In 1906 three new drop curtains for the stage were added and under the stage a property room finished for chair storage. In 1911 toilets were added to the dressing rooms.
1902 saw the beginning of basketball at Central Hall. This in addition to plays, minstrel shows, silent movies, graduations, dances and roller skating. Central Hall was the hub of activities for Dover.
In 1924 the Hall received a new steel ceiling in the main hall, a portico was added to the front entrance and a new furnace installed. And in 1925, an indoor rifle range was added by Co. L of the National Guard. Damage of $3,000 occurred when fire broke out in an unused ice house behind the Hall. Only lack of wind that night in 1930 prevented the Hall from being a casualty.
In 1935 roller skating returned to the Hall and in 1936 the “Players Club” started a fund for new seats by staging plays. In 1939, under the WPA (Work Progress Administration) and Town Manager Theriault, the basement was excavated, a new heating plant installed and the rearrangement of offices on the first floor as carried out.
In February of 1940, Town Manager Theriault, in his capacity as building inspector, “condemned for public gathering” Central Hall. And why? Since the earliest years the Hall had no basement and the dampness had caused the sills to rot. And the huge numbers of people who came to see the boys FA basketball games strained the balcony to point that it had begun to pull away from the walls. The town meeting in March had plenty of ideas to both save and renovate the Hall or to abandon it and build a new structure. After two hours of debate nothing was resolved. A committee was appointed to study the pros and cons and to report back to a special town meeting to be held eight weeks hence. Members of that committee were Walter Mayo, Henry Gerrish, Everett Downs and Arthur Gilman.
Estimates were provided for the much needed work. A long report was published and provided at the next meeting. The most expensive estimates would provide a nearly new building while the least costly would mean more repairs to follow and then there was the scenario of demolition and a brand new structure. The cost was just over $15,000! The time was just after the Depression and the war in Europe left many uncertainties. The cost to renovate was $5,000. After another two hour discussion, the 543 persons attending cast their votes – 310 voting to keep the majestic old building and 233 wanting a new building.
In 1952 the Kiwanis Club helped to renovate the first floor by working on the corridors and decorating the offices. And in 1953, the Thespian Guild was formed and presented plays with the proceeds going to improve the stage. And in 1955 at the town meeting the article to close the hall was once again on the agenda. It was 10:30 at night, the article was read and the townspeople, thinking only of bedtime, voted to indefinitely postpone the matter.
And then came a very critical report from the State Insurance Commissioner’s office. It was June of 1960 and the report stated “conditions inconsistent with public safety must be corrected” – namely, the four interior stairways must be made fire resistant, the boiler room needed to be made fire resistant, a sprinkler system needed to be installed and fire escapes must go to the ground level. The cost $6,000. The voters once again came to the rescue. They appropriated $4,000 for repairs and authorized the borrowing of $8,000 for a sprinkler system.
Central Hall continued to be used as the town offices until the end of 2008, when the town offices moved to Morton Avenue School. Again Central Hall’s existence was in jeopardy. At that time a group of interested citizens from the Dover-Foxcroft Historical Society not wanting to see Central Hall disappear as did the Blethen House, its neighbor across the street, formed the “Friends of Central Hall” who worked diligently raising interest and money to save the building.
Three years later Maine Highlands Senior Center was born. Central Hall would be renovated with the second floor hall being refurbished to its former glory for community events, while the ground (first) floor would be built to house an Adult Day Care and Senior Center whose service to the community would maintain Central Hall as a key edifice in Dover for years to come. The renovation project total expenses are $2,050,000 (including removal of asbestos and lead paint from the old structure and replacement of the Mansard roof). Thanks to the foresight and excellent construction techniques and materials of the original builders, however, the basic framework, trusses and foundation of the building are still in excellent condition, solid and square. Funding is still an issue as it was throughout the life of the Hall. But the Friends of Central Hall are confident that putting the old building to good use will benefit the town for years to come. We welcome any donations to help put this beautiful building back to good use in the community.