By Ron Hayes
OCEAN RIDGE — When residents gathered for their annual Light The Lights celebration Dec. 5, those long strings of twinkling white bulbs didn’t brighten only the holiday season. They also shone on a beautiful new Town Hall and a new chapter in the community’s history.
The $4 million building is three times larger than its predecessor, equipped with state-of-the-art communications and capable of withstanding a 160-mph hurricane.
It’s been built to last a long time — and it’s been a long time coming.
“We were speaking of the need for a new building when I first started as a dispatcher back in 1981,” remembers Town Clerk Karen Hancsak, “so I’m ecstatic it’s happened during my tenure here. And it is beautiful.”
At 11,000 square feet, the new complex is a mansion compared to the first Town Hall, a 10-by-10-foot concrete box at the east end of the Ocean Avenue bridge.
“The original foundation is still standing back in the mangroves,” says former mayor and town historian Gail Aaskov. “If the police wanted to go to the bathroom, they had to walk across the bridge.”
The Town Hall Hancsak began working in 27 years ago was built in 1962.
“And these past few years, the storms really took a toll on it structurally," says Mayor Ken Kaleel. “Wilma, Frances and Jeanne — we got hit by all three, plus we had asbestos problems and mold and air quality issues. It was falling down, and this one is going to stay up.” For its design, the Town Commission turned to a resident and former mayor, architect Digby Bridges, who turned to South Africa for inspiration.
“The style is called Cape Dutch,” Bridges explained one November morning, as landscapers scurried to finish planting in time for the grand opening. Developed in the 18th century during the Dutch Colonial presence around Capetown, the style is characterized by large, ornately curved gables. Cape Dutch homes are traditionally painted either white with green shutters or yellow with blue, and adorned with pagodas on either side of a front door.
Bridges opted for white with green shutters and added pagodas. But while the true Cape Dutch building is usually H-shaped with a thatched roof, Bridges has modified the H and substituted a mansard-style roof with slate tiles.
Ponder those gables a moment and, yes, you can see them on an Amsterdam canal.
“My partner, Mark Marsh, said, “We’ve tried and tried to get this style into domestic architecture with no success,’ ” Bridges recalled. “So this is the first we’ve done, and now everyone loves it.”
Traditional Cape Dutch buildings don’t include a kiosk and fishpond on the grounds, but the new Town Hall has both, thanks to twin brothers who died more than 20 years ago.
When longtime residents Tom and Paul McGinty passed away within months of each other in 1986, they left $25,000 for a memorial. The money remained in trust, unused and drawing interest, until now.
But while the Town Hall’s exterior looks back to the 18th century, the building’s interior looks to the 21st. “The construction company, BSA, really rose to the occasion,” says Mayor Kaleel. “They were right on budget and on time — except for the plane crash.”
And that wasn’t their fault, of course. On July 22, a twin-engine plane crashed into the nearly completed building. The pilot wasn’t seriously injured, but the landing gear cracked the main gable and sliced through the roof of what is now a sunny front room set aside for the town's first library.
“We call the library the hangar because that’s where the wheel was hanging down,” Kaleel says. He can speak lightly now, but the accident did $130,000 in damage and delayed the project six weeks.
The staff, who moved out of the temporary doublewide trailers and into the new building in early October, are still struggling to find words grand enough to praise it.
“The police are walking around in shock,” says Chief Ed Hillery of his 14-person force. “You have to remember, when we moved from the old building into the doublewide, that was an upgrade.”
Now the Police Department stretches down a long hall at the rear of the building, and includes a fully equipped exercise room donated by the town’s Police Support Group.
“Our copy room was a converted cell,” laughs Hancsak, the town clerk. Now the town staff has a real copy room, a break room and small meeting rooms.
And the two holding cells are at the opposite end of the building from the commission chambers.
“The old jail was like Barney Fife,” quips Mayor Kaleel. “Over the years, there were times when we’d have somebody in jail, and we’d be trying to conduct a town meeting, and you could hear a bit of a ruckus through the walls.”
In the lobby, a 35-foot skylight pours sunlight on the reception desk, and Hancsak serves residents from a spacious administration area.
The commission chambers seat about 120, but a retractable wall at the rear can create a separate community room for special events. While town voters were helping to elect a new commander in chief on the morning of Nov. 4, the regularly scheduled code board meeting was being held in the commission chambers, thanks to that retractable wall, which turned the space into a voting precinct. In the previous building, the meeting would have had to be rescheduled.
In the chambers, the Town Commission, town manager and town attorney sit at a desk equipped with sunken computer screens, on which Hancsak can broadcast any documents or videos needed during deliberations.
“In the old days,” Mayor Kaleel recalls, “if we had a hurricane watch, we had to move everything out of the building. We won’t have to do that anymore.” The Town Hall wasn’t cheap. There’s a 20-year, 4 percent mortgage to be paid. But the mayor says it is money well spent, and appreciated, too.
“There’s more to it than just a building,” Kaleel says. “It’s really a testament to the community that showcases the town and how the residents feel about the town.
“This is a Town Hall that will be here for the next 50 to 70 years, or more.”