Column: Square House as city office building

Later this year, we will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the completion of the present City Hall. Those of us who were on the City Council at that time may look back in wonderment at how the whole city staff, except for police and fire, were ever able to squeeze into the small wooden building constructed as a pre-revolutionary inn.carey

One example of the new building’s enlargement of space is the accommodation for the city manager. Before the move, he was crammed into the tiny area in back of the Square House meeting room. But this was Jack Paulus, our first city manager, and he was a good sport. His quarters in the new building must have seemed palatial by comparison.

The story of how we came to have so spacious and handsome a building as the 1964 City Hall is worth recalling.

The City Council, realizing the Square House was inadequate, planned to tear down 51 Milton and replace it with a one-floor, flat-roofed building to house the city staff and meeting space.

There were those in Rye who did not care for flat roofs, among them John Motley Morehead, former Rye Village mayor and a founder of Union Carbide. He strode forward, offering to donate a new City Hall, provided his architect would be in full charge.

And so, at no cost to us, we acquired as fine a federal-style edifice as could be imagined, every door knob was made of the finest materials.

But back to the Square House; it served us for many years until 1964. There were departmental offices on both the ground floor and the second floor. The meeting room was furnished as it is today. The council sat around the same table that sits there now. The mayor was at the end furthest from the street. At the opposite end sat the Rye supervisor, with his back to the audience.

I here use masculine pronouns advisedly; there was yet to be a woman on the council; Janet Rogers was the first, a little later.

So you ask, why a supervisor, and where did he come from? The answer is that Westchester then had no legislators elected by districts, only supervisors selected by communities. Rye elected a supervisor, one being Lester Cook. I ran into Lester the day before I first ran for a seat on the council. He told me, “You’re gonna get beat.”

He was right, and was not being mean, just realistic.

In those days, the council would usually meet upstairs at the Square House and come down to the meeting room only after going over the evening’s business. There was no open meetings law then, but some of us complained we were being excluded from a key phase of the legislative process.

Even now, the council gathers in the conference room before emerging to mount the dais, but now the conference room doors are supposed to be open so members of the public can sit in and listen, maybe even speak up, as the spirit moves them.

One good thing about meetings in the Square House was you could always hear the discussion around the table. Nowadays, with exceptions, council members seem to be talking only to each other, keeping their voices too low to be heard, even by members of the public in the first few rows of the audience. If you really want to hear what is said from the dais, you might as well stay home and watch it on Rye TV, which delivers an audible version thanks to the magic of modern electronics.

But if you’re home, and suddenly feel the urge to be heard, and live at any distance from City Hall, you have to leap into your car and race there, in hopes of still being heard.

Another good thing about meetings in the Square House was you could feel the eyes and ears of some of our country’s early leaders watching and listening. John Adams, Samuel Adams and George Washington all stayed there overnight during their travels between New York and Boston.

In such company, you thought more than twice about what you were about to say publicly.