By JOHN FLOWERS
MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury’s newly renovated Town Hall Theater (THT) on March 2 will take a brief holiday as an entertainment venue in order to return to its roots as the hub of municipal government.
Selectmen and THT officials have confirmed Middlebury’s annual town meeting will return to the theater building after a more than 50-year hiatus.
“I think it’s a wonderful opportunity,” Middlebury selectboard Chairman John Tenny said of town meeting’s impending relocation to the THT. “We are hoping for a very strong showing (from townspeople).”
The venerable building at 68 South Pleasant St. was erected in 1884 as Middlebury’s first town hall. The structure featured a 600-seat theater that hosted — along with Middlebury’s annual meeting — a variety of plays, concerts, dances, speeches and eventually, movies.
But the building’s run as town hall ended during the 1950s, when local leaders moved Middlebury’s municipal offices to their current location: The former Middlebury High School complex off College Street. Meanwhile, the former town hall was sold to private owners, who over the years used it as an eatery and for other commercial purposes.
It was around a decade ago that a group of drama enthusiasts and community members organized an effort to purchase the building from the Middlebury Knights of Columbus, and transform it into a performing arts center. Organizers were able to take their bow this past summer, when they opened the THT after having raised more than $5 million to acquire and completely renovate the landmark property.
While plays and musical events have dominated THT’s marquee, facility administrators have stressed the building has been open to other activities, such as private receptions, an art gallery, dance rehearsals and a winter farmers’ market. The structure will become even more established as a community asset next spring when it hosts Middlebury’s annual town meeting.
“We looked over the facility, discussing the capacity and the logistics of holding the meeting,” Tenny said of a recent inspection with THT Executive Director Doug Anderson. “It appeared as though the building would work very well.”
Middlebury officials believe the THT will provide a more comfortable town meeting experience than the municipal gym, where the annual gatherings are currently held. The gym has been a challenge to heat, while the folding chairs and bleachers have worn out many a posterior before the final gavel has dropped on the average town meeting.
In the THT, town officials will have a state-of-the-art facility with a top-notch sound system, great lighting, comfortable seating and a slightly raised stage from which municipal leaders can direct the proceedings.
Anderson noted the while the THT is currently configured to seat up to 232, more temporary seating can be place on the floor of the facility to up the capacity to around 300 “with little effort.”
There are around 90 parking spaces surrounding the THT. That includes on-street spaces on South Pleasant and parking lots made available after business hours by Langrock, Sperry and Wool and Middlebury College’s Painter House.
That’s considerably better than the number of available spaces near the municipal gym, according to town officials.
“We have not had a single parking complaint since we opened in July,” said Anderson, who hopes THT will again become the long-term home of Middlebury town meeting.
“We’re very excited about it,” he said.