Bangor’s city hall on Harlow Street has been the headquarters of municipal government for 50 years now, ever since the city voted to demolish the old city hall during the Urban Renewal era.
The old building, which was knocked down 50 years ago, in early 1969, was one of the most distinctive structures in Bangor. Opened in 1894, the 4½-story building was known officially as the Samuel F. Hersey Memorial Building and was located at the corner of Hammond and Columbia streets.
A Maine native, Samuel Freeman Hersey was one of Bangor’s most successful “lumber barons,” who made his fortune in the lumber business with his partner, Isaac Staples. Staples handled the logging business out in Minnesota, while Hersey’s Maine employees felled trees up north and sent them down the Penobscot River to Bangor. After terms in both the Maine Senate and House and an unsuccessful run for governor, Hersey died in 1875, leaving nearly his entire fortune to the city of Bangor — $100,000 in total, equivalent to just shy of $2.3 million today after adjusting for inflation.
The city took that money and, per Hersey’s wishes, built two buildings: the original Bangor Public Library, and a new city hall. The original library building burned down during the Great Bangor Fire of 1911, tragically destroying nearly 70,000 volumes. A new library — the core building of the one that still stands today — opened in December 1913.
Construction on the Samuel F. Hersey Memorial Building began in 1893. At the time, the building was quite a grand edifice for the city, boasting a bell tower and clock face visible from throughout downtown, a copper weathervane of an eagle and an imposing bronze bust of Hersey himself. The bronze bust and the weathervane were saved, and can still be seen today inside the current city hall on Harlow Street.
Inside, in addition to the usual offices and meeting rooms, there was a large public auditorium, where concerts, plays and lectures were regularly held, and which was at one point the home of the Bangor Symphony Orchestra. The 1,500-seat space with a horseshoe-shaped balcony hosted everything from ballroom dancing lessons taught by Polly Thomas, founder of the Thomas School of Dance, to concerts from the likes of the Von Trapp Family Singers, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons.
But in the late 1930s, city staff started to complain that the building was inadequate for the city’s needs. According to a 2009 Bangor Daily News article, by the early 1950s, the first comprehensive plan commissioned by the city included a recommendation that a new city hall be built next to the library on Harlow Street.
It took nearly 20 more years for city hall to move, however. It didn’t actually happen until the Urban Renewal Authority, the local board assembled in 1958 to administer federal urban renewal funds, agreed to buy the Hersey building and the land on which it stood. The city, meanwhile, had arranged to acquire the old post office and federal building from the federal government for use as a new city hall. That building, built in 1912 and located at 73 Harlow St., remains Bangor’s city hall all these years later. The federal offices and post office moved to a then brand-new building at 202 Harlow St., now known as the Margaret Chase Smith Federal Building.
As with many of the decisions made during the Urban Renewal era of the 1960s and early 1970s, rather than attempt the work of preserving a historic building, city staff and the Urban Renewal Authority opted instead to simply demolish the old city hall. According to that 2009 article, preservation was seen as too costly and potentially unsafe. Similar arguments against preservation were made when structures such as the Flatiron Building in Pickering Square and the Bijou Theatre on Exchange Street were destroyed around the same time.
Backhoes and wrecking balls arrived at the Hersey building in early 1969, not long after the official move to the new city hall on Harlow Street. Less than a year after the building was destroyed, a two-level parking lot had been built in its place, which still stands today.