On Sept. 18, 1985, the old Northborough Town Hall was destroyed by fire. Tony Kwan, the developer who had been refurbishing the building, had a contract to control the property for a 40-year period. He wished to build a replica of the bulding. It would of course be a replica only externally; no one would have attempted to recreate the interior of a building erected in 1867.
Some people were opposed. The selectmen, however, voted 4-1 to allow Kwan to proceed. The disagreeing selectman, Simeon Fouracre, recommended an article on a warrant for a special town meeting in January 1986 that would call for the creation of a study committee. Fouracre himself recommended a park on the site, but he had agreed to let the townspeople decide the matter. The voters decided to support the selectmen's decision and turned down the idea of the committee and the reconsideration.
Today it is difficult to determine whether the voters were more interested in having the replica or in avoiding a difficult contract dispute with Kwan, for the town counsel had ruled that Kwan possessed the right to rebuild. The Historical Commission had favored Kwan's idea. Fouracre saw it differently: "He cannot build the Old Town Hall back. It and its history are gone. He has proposed a building with a camouflage front of the Old Town Hall."
Several years after the fire dozens of citizens, responding to a query by the Historical Society, called the fire the worst thing that had ever happened in Northborough. They remembered decades of civil, educational, and social events in the building. Some even recalled the films that played there in the silent movie era.
Fouracre proved prescient. No citizens fell in love with the new building. And with few exceptions merchants, for different reasons, didn't either. After the building remained empty for several years, an advertising agency leased the second floor but did not remain long. Tom's Eating and Drinking Place flourished for a while on the first floor. Just recently Boost Fitness, which had occupied the top two floors, moved out. Perhaps we are in for another long stretch of a large and nearly empty building in the town's center.
At the time of the fire Northborough was facing a traffic crisis, and the junctions of Main, Church and Pierece were at its center. It appears that no one even brought up the possibility of using the empty space to contrive a direct connection between Church and South Streets. One group was thinking merely of traffic, another merely of a building site. Such an innnovation would have required the shaving of two properties, the old pharmacy lot and the house at the corner across Pierce Street. Now, with a new pharmacy in place and a bank about to go in at the latter location, such a change is impossible — but would it have been impossible then?
Today we still are facing the reconstruction of Main, Church and Pierce Streets, and we will continue to have two cluttered main intersections within a few yards of each other.