Town Hall Turnaround

The renewed interest in creating places where residents can access and contribute to their government follows a significant period of mass-produced municipal buildings. The growing movement in New Urbanism, or traditional neighborhood design, has inspired cities to become more diverse in culture and function, provide public spaces that encourage pedestrian traffic and recreation, and reflect their community’s unique composition, history, environment and values. As such, the architectural and landscape design of the municipal building now often develops in response to the people and community it will serve. 

Along with the increasing emphasis on community involvement are logistical reasons that require the renovation of existing facilities. New advances in technology, many of which didn’t exist a decade ago, for record and data processing often demand new infrastructure. The growing amount of information available online has changed the public’s need to visit the town hall. Uninspiring places result in lackluster public interest and participation in community affairs. Finally, buildings may simply become outdated aesthetically or programmatically due to changes in town demographics, population, and organization of services. 

Five design rules

When planning a town hall, the building design should satisfy five rules to be successful for a local government. First, the building must fit into and augment the town fabric. It must integrate with the existing architecture, town organization and spatial dynamics. It has to speak the language of the town, its residents, and its future. 

Second, the building and landscape design must be durable both in terms of physical materials and also to convey a sense of permanence. The foundation and materials with which the town hall is constructed should be robust and durable. In turn, the town hall-the foundation of the community-must be a safe and secure place for residents.

Third, the design must be planned and developed in an open and accessible manner. A transparent government that invites input, contributions and scrutiny of the people it serves should be housed in a building that likewise was built with transparency in planning, land use and budget.

Fourth, the town hall should be created with outdoor spaces that provide what KSS Architects calls a “place where the parade ends,” such as a plaza or park setting. This reaffirms the purpose of a town hall as a public forum where the community can gather, express their opinions, and foster the town spirit. 

Lastly, the town hall design must ultimately and clearly serve the public. The purpose of a town hall is to support and promote democracy, the foundation of this country. A democracy flourishes only when citizens participate in the decisions that in return govern their lives. The design must encourage citizen action, efficiently accommodate their needs, and reflect the community’s beliefs, culture and people. 

Considerations to keep in mind

Good design includes safety measures for town hall occupants and visitors. For example, a judge must be able to travel securely to and from his office and the courtroom. Police need to escort people in a controlled manner in designated areas inaccessible to the general public. 

The design should increase the efficiency and even productivity of the space. The site should organize the diverse services of a town hall into an intuitive and logical layout, sensible to veteran city employees or first-time visitors to the town. 

Finally, the design should be classic, bold and appealing. No one wants a homely building to represent their hometown. Besides superficial aesthetics, the town hall must contain subtle and intelligent design moves. For example, the design may incorporate iconic elements, such as vaulted ceilings, grand entrances, or a classic layout to convey reverence for the public involvement in government and become linked to the town’s image. 

Case study: Denville Township

The leaders of Denville Township, N.J., were debating between a municipal building and a town hall when they sat down with KSS Architects to plan a new home for its government. Upon learning about the strengths of a town hall, Denville agreed this building type best suited the needs and voice of their town. 

Denville has always been a model town with a great Main Street, retail opportunities, and social atmosphere. However, its existing municipal facility did not reflect the town’s spirit. Converted from a former elementary school, the building was crammed with administrative offices, council rooms and court rooms. It was operating well beyond capacity, and employees were working not necessarily in the most efficient manner, but in a manner they had adapted to the limitations of the building.

The township council had assumed the most economical strategy would be to renovate the existing municipal building. Denville engaged KSS to conduct a study to identify how to expand its building to address their needs and properly accommodate its municipal offices and services.

 After completing an investigation developed collectively with township representatives, KSS proposed an entirely different solution: Abandon the existing building and start fresh. Create a town hall that truly exemplified the characteristics of a strong town hall design instead of coercing an outdated building skeleton to fit these modern principles. This strategy would orient the new building on a more prominent and ideal location on the existing site for better visibility in the community, and even more compelling: A new building would be more economical than renovating the existing building. 

After KSS explained their findings, the township quickly embraced the idea of starting fresh. In planning the project approach, we proposed completing the new building in phases. Rather than completely demolishing the existing building at project startup, we demolished only the old school gymnasium. This left the existing structure mostly intact such that town business could continue throughout construction. 

We constructed the new town hall in front of the old structure along Main Street, right before the eyes of the townspeople. The government was literally reaching out to the town. At the project’s conclusion, the old building was demolished and replaced with parking areas. 

Project Reflection

Through good design we produced a town hall that will serve Denville well. The new organization and orientation of the site integrate the existing police headquarters with the town hall more effectively, and have produced improved and expanded parking facilities. Town hall features, such as an oversized entrance and clear directional signage in the lobby, create an easily-navigable layout for visitors. 

To establish a sense of permanence, the building uses brick masonry with cast stone lintels and trim. The vaulted council room expresses itself in the interior as well as fronting a visible public space from the exterior, which creates a sense of grandeur for the most public of the spaces. A service corridor allows the judge to travel safely between his office and the courtroom. The corridor also provides an efficient, quick path for other specialized groups, including financial employees, to maneuver securely. 

A community room for informal or formal public gatherings is completely enveloped by glass to reiterate the idea of an atmosphere open and inviting to the public. Located in the back of the building behind the courtroom, the police station comprises a jail and holding area with direct access to the courtroom. The courthouse’s location on the main boulevard provides easy accessibility and high visibility to the community. Arcades of tall, vertical windows give the public a glimpse of the activities inside. 

A forecourt and garden at the street side and at the entrance give the building a public face. This is Denville’s place “where the parade ends” and the seat of government begins. At night, the town hall remains lit to serve as a reminder to the townspeople that their government supports them every hour, every day. 

Looking Ahead

The vision and ideas that led to the new town hall came from the KSS’ design philosophy as well as the leadership of Denville. Then-Mayor Gene Feyl and township administrator Ellen Sandman expressed a strong desire to craft a building that communicates a sense of tradition, corresponds architecturally with the town’s history, and addresses the modern aesthetic and functional attitudes. 

Denville’s new town hall and municipal complex suits the town’s character and helps government meets its goals. It allows officials to perform their jobs effectively, invites public participation and assembly, and saves taxpayers money in the long run. The design will accommodate inevitable growth and changes in the town in technology, public services and composition. The project demonstrates how to design and build new municipal facilities efficiently that express the voices of the community and foster civic participation.