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The vote that saved Alpena City Hall

I suspect you have wondered — maybe while nowhere near it, perhaps when passing by — but at some point, you have likely asked: “Why is our City Hall built from Limestone quarried in Bedford, Indiana?”

Indeed, why from a Hoosier quarry hundreds of miles away, not the limestone or block fashioned from the stuff of our soil?

Early city records are sparse. Much was mercifully unrecorded and, fortunately, lost. However, I believe sufficient clues exist in this case to — if not render an altogether certain picture — provide solid support for the speculations that follow.

By 1904, the need for a centralized location for city government had become apparent. City offices were scattered around the city. Staff and their records were rubbing up against the populace. The need for a central location to eliminate chafing and provide secure record retention was becoming acute.

The Churchill Hotel had burned a few years earlier, so a convenient location was available. The Churchill brothers were approached with an offer — it was well-received.

Clark and Munger, Bay City architects, were retained to design our City Hall. They did so in a professional manner, calling for the finest materials reasonably attainable and suited to a building whose use and length of service would be extensive. To that end, they specified Bedford limestone.

Bedford stone was the finest quality construction limestone in the nation. It had been used to rebuild much of Chicago after the great fire there and found application in both the Pentagon and Empire State Building.

Of course, a plan so well-conceived caused problems.

Bids were advertised, and the construction contract was awarded in regular course to Richard H. Collins, a highly regarded local builder and the father of Phelps Collins, the World War I ace for whom our airfield is named.

No sooner had the contract been awarded when a delegation sponsored by Alpena County Bank appeared before the city council. They protested the contract’s award, asserting the new City Hall should not be constructed of Bedford stone, but of materials procured from local businesses, even though they would be more expensive and — at that time — of inferior quality.

Though an agreement had been reached and an obligation created, a motion to reconsider was advanced — it received a second.

How many bank debtors do you suppose were among the city aldermen present that day? How many delinquencies represented in that number? How many over 90 days?

The motion passed.

A disillusioned Richard Collins told the council he would not stand in their way, which tells you something about Collins and, perhaps, about why things turned out the way they did.

But first, everything got real quiet, and stayed that way for several days. The council’s support of institutional decay got adjourned to backroom venues.

We can only imagine the volume of the recriminations, the intensity of the negotiations.

There is no record that a man of the cloth was summoned, but indications are strong some form of divine intervention occurred. On April 19, 1905, a ray of brightness broke through the political haze — the City Hall contract came back before the council.

The Alpena Argus reported the proceedings:

“The question of letting the contract for building the new city hall was taken from the table, and the contract let to Richard H. Collins to build the same of Bedford Limestone for the sum of $22,921.23.”

The theft of an honest vote had been avoided — by honest men.

Make a note of it.

Our City Hall has served us well for 115 years and counting. Setting aside the cost of routine maintenance and minor remodeling, its amortized annual cost comes in at $197.59 — a per-capita cost of less than 2 cents for each city resident per year.

Good, honest value.

Are you amazed by the flagrancy of today’s politicians’ attempts to set aside honest votes cast in lawful elections? Are you perplexed and angered by their continuing attempts to circumscribe our right to vote?

Then celebrate the sweet smell of a proud moment in our city’s history, 116 years ago — this Monday.

Doug Pugh’s “Vignettes” runs weekly on Saturdays. He can be reached at pughda@gmail.com.

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