Hardly anyone likes to see beautiful, old buildings demolished to make way for modern replacements. Negative reaction poured in quickly recently when I shared a photo of the 1969 demolition of the White House Inn, the Washington Street tourist home built in the 1800s, razed to make way for the Dulles State Office building.
One reader mentioned the old Watertown City Hall on Court Street as an example of another beautiful historic building that was demolished. Certainly, the 1897 Romanesque building, with its artistic exterior stonework, arched entranceway and tall center tower, was a sentimental favorite in Watertown.
In the latest episode of our local history podcast, Second Look, I tell the story of old City Hall, from when the city council approved D.D. Keiff’s architectural plans, to Mayor J.B. Wise’s dedication address in 1887, to the many structural problems that plagued the building almost from the start.
Perhaps it’s a bit symbolic, then, that the cornerstone of this stately, but ultimately doomed building, was also disappointing. Placed carefully by city representatives in November 1895, the copper box was filled with newspapers, government papers, business records about the various industries in Watertown and rosters of “secret clubs.” It was to be a time capsule for future people to discover.
When the building’s demolition was imminent, the opening of that cornerstone was a cause for “considerable interest,” a bright spot in an otherwise bleak event. Unfortunately, that turned out to be a huge disappointment. The box’s contents were discovered to be nothing more than a “soggy mess.” The papers were dried together, exposed to decades of condensation, making identification of individual items impossible. It was sadly fitting for this building that, while beautiful, seemed to be one problem after another.
When the new city hall was dedicated in 1965, a new time capsule was placed in that cornerstone, to be opened at some future date, probably when a yet newer city hall is built, somewhere we can only imagine now. Let’s hope that one was sealed better.
It is worth noting that it has been 55 years since Watertown dedicated its current city hall on Washington Street. The old one on Court Street was abandoned after 70 years. Maybe the old building was just random bad luck. Or maybe the clock is ticking on 245 Washington St.