Old Town Hall in Salem, Massachusetts

Built in 1816, Old Town Hall is a historic building located in Derby Square in Salem, Massachusetts that served as a town hall and marketplace.

The building is a two-story brick Federal-style building, constructed by master mason Joshua Upham, that features Palladian windows, carved wood details, antique chandeliers, decorative columns and wooden floors.

The first floor originally housed a marketplace while the second floor was used to host public meetings and gatherings.

The hall was built on the site of the homestead of loyalist Colonel William Browne, which was confiscated by the Massachusetts legislature in 1784 and demolished by Elias Haskett Derby when he purchased the property in 1798.

In its place, Derby built a Federal-style mansion in 1799 that was designed by noted architect Charles Bullfinch and executed by local architect Samuel McIntire. After Derby died the mansion passed down to his son Elias Derby Jr.

On November 20, 1815, Elias Derby Jr demolished the mansion, due to its high maintenance costs, and sold the land to John Derby III and Benjamin Pickman, Jr, who also bought some of the land adjacent to the property and made plans to develop the area into a commercial district.

These plans included constructing a town hall building as well as three commercial blocks. Derby III and Pickman submitted the plans to the city at a town meeting on May 20, 1816 and they were accepted.

On July 13, 1816, a 100 foot by 65 foot plot located in the center of the property was conveyed to the Town of Salem.

Derby Square, Salem, Mass, photographed by Cook & Friend, circa 19th Century
Derby Square, Salem, Mass, photographed by Cook & Friend, circa 19th Century

Later that year, builder Joshua Upham constructed the Old Town Hall on the plot of land at the cost of $12,000.

The marketplace on the first floor officially opened to the public on November 25, 1816 and the hall above was first opened to the public on July 8, 1817 during an official visit to Salem from President James Monroe.

The development of Derby Square and the construction of the three commercial blocks began in 1817.

The new commercial district was successful and Derby Square soon became home to various hotels, billiard halls, restaurants and “liquor saloons,” according to the book Old Naumkeag, while the town hall was used to host political rallies, temperance meetings and other events.

In 1837, a new Town Hall was built on Washington Street and Old Town Hall was no longer used as the headquarters of the city government yet still housed a few government offices. The public market on the first floor continued until 1933.

From 1933 to 1934, the building was heavily renovated by architect Philip H. Smith and the marketplace stalls and basement dining rooms were removed. The stalls were remodeled into city offices, storage areas and a city vault.

In 1972, the area surrounding the Old Town Hall, including Derby Square, Essex Street, Washington Street and Front Street, was added to the National Register of Historic Places as the Old Town Hall Historic District.

In 1975, the Old Town Hall was renovated by preservation architect James Ballou.

Old Town Hall in Derby Square, Salem Mass, circa 19th century
Old Town Hall in Derby Square, Salem, Mass, circa 19th century

The Old Town Hall Historic District was expanded in 1983 to include Church Street, Central Street, New Derby Street, and Washington Street and was renamed the Downtown Salem District.

In the fall 1992, a scene from the Disney film Hocus Pocus was filmed at the Old Town Hall.

In 2011, the city opened the Salem Museum, a history museum featuring exhibits on Salem history, on the first floor of the Old Town Hall. The second floor continues to serve as a hall for public meetings and community events.

In 2015, the Old Town Hall windows were renovated by Campbell Construction Group and Gray Architects when 36 of the 66 Palladian-style windows were restored due to broken glass panes, deteriorated glazing, rotted sills and frames and damaged pulley systems.

Old Town Hall is now a stop on the Salem Heritage Trail, which is a walking trail that leads to many of the historic sites in the city.

Sources:
Hunt, Franklin Thomas and Henry Morrill Batchelder, John Robinson. Visitor’s Guide to Salem. Essex Institute, 1895.
Webber, C.H. And W.S. Nevins. Old Naumkeag: An Historical Sketch of the City of Salem. A.A. Smith & Company, 1877.
“Salem Old Town Hall.” MACRIS, Massachusetts Cultural Resource Information System, Massachusetts Historical Commission, mhc-macris.net/Details.aspx?MhcId=SAL.2496
Castelluccio, John. “Rotting, broken windows to be replaced at Salem’s Old Town Hall.” The Salem News, 2 April. 2015, salemnews.com/news/local_news/rotting-broken-windows-to-be-replaced-at-salems-old-town-hall/article_3126377a-fa8c-5410-a13b-16ec2353e6a1.html
“Old Town Hall.” City of Salem Ma, salem.com/old-town-hall

About Rebecca Beatrice Brooks

Rebecca Beatrice Brooks is the author and publisher of the History of Massachusetts Blog. Rebecca is a freelance journalist and history lover who got her start in journalism working for small-town newspapers in Massachusetts and New Hampshire after she graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a B.A. in journalism. Visit this site's About page to find out more about Rebecca.

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