City Hall to be featured on Ocean City 2014 beach tag

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City Hall when it was built in 1914. City Hall when it was built in 1914.

OCEAN CITY — Built in 1914 to house the offices of city government and the police and fire departments, Ocean City’s historic City Hall even contained a jell cell. To celebrate the building’s centennial, City Hall will be featured on the beach tags this summer.

Designed by Vivian Smith, then an up-and-coming local architect, the Beaux Arts Classic style structure, made of brick, stone and terra cotta was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1997.

The Ocean City Historical Museum houses a shovel from the ground breaking and numerous photos of the construction.

Not everyone was happy with the new facility, local historian Fred Miller said. He said the structure cost taxpayers $75,000 and then-Mayor Harry Headley a re-election bid in May 1915.

“Mayor Headley was very proud of the library,” Miller said, recalling newspaper accounts of the grand opening celebration.

The accounts say there was a big question about how much money was spent.

“Vivian Smith’s first design was turned down,” Miller said.

He said Smith envisioned a larger building, but scaled it down after public backlash.

“The first plans were amazing,” he said. “There was a big dome; it’s really a shame that they didn’t build it. People were upset, so they got the cost down to $75,000.”

Nonetheless, the existing building was designed to be a “monumental edifice,” he said.

The entrance is recessed in an archway, flanked by double columns. Two large cast iron light fixtures stand on either side of the stairs. Inside, the structure has retained much of its original design, including marble terrazzo floors and paneled wainscoting. The open staircase is made of marble.

“It was impressive at the time, it’s still impressive,” Miller said.

After the election of 1911, Headley and two commissioners decided to build City Hall. At the time, the city’s government had been meeting at the Massey Edwards building on the northwest corner of Eighth Street and Central Avenue.

“They used that building for city business, and they were intent on creating City Hall,” Miller said.

According to Ken Cooper, president of the Ocean City Historical Museum, Headley used numerous arguments to encourage the citizenry to support a new hub for city government. At the same time, the commissioners were pushing for a new bridge onto the island from Somers Point at Ninth Street. On Dec. 6, 1912, the commissioners passed a resolution to advertise for bids for the bridge. The new, two lane bridge was completed in 1914.

A lot of people were unhappy with the increase in appropriations, according to Miller.

“They thought the city was spending too much,” he said.

The commissioners planned to pave Ninth Street from the bridge to the beach. City Hall would be located along this new gateway, Headley said at the time, making it a natural anchor.

Headley argued that the current firehouse was dilapidated, and the city needed to modernize fire service to meet the growing needs of the burgeoning island resort. City Hall, he said, could house both the No. 1 and 3 firehouses in one location.

The police and fire departments would be housed together on the first floor of the three-story structure.

“The history of the building is interesting. Mayor Headley said the new City Hall would be a source of pride for the residents,” Cooper said. “It was an ongoing debate. Some people questioned the location, others the cost and design.”

Headley agreed to go along with the will of the residents and a special election was held on Aug. 1, 2013.

“The people voted for a new City Hall,” Cooper said.

The cornerstone was laid on April 11, 2014. The grand opening was held on Jan. 1, 1915.

 “During the grand opening, they gave tours of the building,” Miller said. “And four months later, the residents threw Mayor Headley and the two commissioners out of office. People felt they had spent too much money.

“Mayor Headley did a lot during his four years in office,” he said. “He was ahead of his time.”

Cooper said City Hall was a tangible sign of the shift from a Methodist Camp Meeting in the late 19th century to an expanding modern city of the 20th century.

“It was a really big deal in our town,” Cooper said.

It has since been witness to two world wars, a Great Depression and numerous changes in government.

Smith, an Ocean City High School graduate, was 28 years old when he designed the structure. He had just opened an office in Atlantic City.

Smith also designed numerous local icons, including The Flanders Hotel and The Chatterbox restaurant.

City Hall reflected a change in style for the island, from Victorian and Colonial Revival to Beaux Arts Classicism, Cooper said.

The composition of the façade, with classic elements such as columns, entablature, modillions, pediments and ornamentation, embodies the Beaux Arts Classicism style, he said.

“The building is incredible,” Miller said. “It had a jail when it first opened; the fire house was on one side, the police station on the other. The second and third floor were used for city business.

“It was quite a building in its time,” he said. “It was one of the better city halls. Vivian Smith designed City Hall in Ventnor, too, and that is also a beautiful building.”

Headley was replaced by Joseph Champion, who was also mayor before Headley. He returned to the mayor’s office from 1931 to 1935.

“After seeing to it that City Hall was built, Mayor Headley did finally get to use it, he just had to wait 15 years when he was elected in 1931,” Miller said.

City Hall as it stands now. City Hall as it stands now.

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