Fifty years ago, I was a fairly new member of the City Council, although I had served while the council still met in the Square House. Our first city manager, Jack Paulus, had his office in the tiny room behind the Square House meeting room.
Before I got on the council, the members would disappear up the Square House stairs for private discussions of city business, but that stopped after some of us had beaten the drums loudly enough and long enough for “Open Government.”
We acquired the new City Hall thanks to the generosity of one man, former Mayor John Motley Morehead, one of the founders of Union Carbide. He knew what he liked in architecture and specified symmetrical brick colonial design. The then council’s plan to replace 51 Milton with a one-story city headquarters was buried and forgotten.
Among the many new houses being built in Rye now, I believe Mayor Ted Dunn’s masterpiece of symmetrical brick architecture on Pine island Road would have pleased Mayor Morehead greatly. And I think he would have shared the regret of many of us at seeing the handsome brick house on the corner of Stuyvesant and Halls Lane demolished except for one façade.
Mayor Morehead also liked clocks, and donated our remarkable tower timepiece whose long pendulum can be seen from the first floor, moving majestically back and forth. When the building was opened to the public, you could see at a glance that no expense had been spared; every item of hardware, for instance, was the finest available.
When it came time for the new City Hall to be dedicated, in December 1964, Mayor Morehead was home with a cold and could not attend in person. But a phone hook-up was arranged so that he, and Rev. Joe Bishop who was with him, could be heard in the meeting room, and the proceedings there were audible to Mayor Morehead. Pat and I were in the third row, near the door to the “Mayor’s Conference Room,” as it is called, over my strong objections since it does not belong just to the mayor.
The meeting room was packed, as it is now, and with very good reason. After all, what other community anywhere in the area could boast so splendid a headquarters? It was fitting that the presider was then Mayor H. Clay Johnson, an outstanding public servant. He headed the American branch of a British insurance giant.
The sheer majesty of the surroundings was awesome, and still is.
Years later, when I was presiding at City Hall, there was a certain meeting at which feelings were running unusually high. There was grumbling and muttering, with a sharp edge to it. Anger was palpable. As mayor, I had to do something to restore calm.
So I asked for a minute of silence, which was respected. Then I asked everyone to look up at the large chandelier that hangs over the chamber, and to consider what a gorgeous work of art it is. And I publicly asked myself whether my own behavior in this chamber matched its elegance. I confessed that I was way behind the chandelier in terms of appropriateness. With that we took a recess, and when we resumed, a calmer atmosphere prevailed.
The essential dignity of the City Council Chamber in City Hall is bound to make anyone, no matter how excited over some issue, pause and reflect on the appropriateness of his or her behavior in such august surroundings. And even if people do not happen to know that the Rye City Council Chamber is patterned after the colonial Virginia House of Burgesses, where Patrick Henry and other founders held forth in the early 1770s, the sheer majesty of our local government center is bound to give pause to anyone, no matter how excited over a particular issue. Let me give an example, known only to a few of us.
There was a time when a group of lady golfers was incensed at being told that they could not reserve early tee-off times on Saturday mornings because that time was reserved for the men, who worked outside their homes weekday mornings. There were plenty of ladies who worked outside their homes weekdays, so you can imagine the resentment at this insult.
I asked the ladies if they would meet with me for a few minutes on the front steps of City Hall. They agreed, so the council meeting took a recess.
The evening was balmy, and the front steps were quite inviting. I made a point of sitting on the bottom step so no one would be looking up at me. I have always believed that the atmosphere in the main chamber is slightly dampened by the elevation of the dais.
The ladies and I quickly agreed that those of them who worked outside the home on weekdays should get early tee-off times on Saturdays. So it was only the authorities from the golf club that had to be persuaded. They were invited to sit with us on the steps, and in a few minutes the problem was solved. I was still on the bottom step, where no one needed to look up at me. The same might have been accomplished indoors, in the solemnity of the council chamber, but it was a lovely, balmy summer evening on the front steps of Mayor Morehead’s majestic City Hall.