On July 21, 1986, the Massachusetts Historical Commission sent a letter to Mr. Glenn Berger, the owner of Exchange Hall. The letter stated;
“Dear Mr. Berger,
The Massachusetts Historical Commission is delighted to inform you that Exchange Hall, Quimby Square, School Street at Main Street, South Acton, Massachusetts, has been accepted by the National Park Service, Department of the Interior, for listing in the National Register of Historic Places. Enclosed is the official National Register Certificate.”
A stranger driving through South Acton and looking at this building today might wonder why it was considered important enough to warrant this distinction. Exchange Hall is a truly elegant structure, both historically and architecturally, it is one of Acton’s most important buildings. It is certainly our most elaborate example of the Italianate style of architecture, another example being the Town Hall.
According to the Massachusetts Historical Commission, “This property is important both for its role in the increasingly prosperous mercantile activities of South Acton and in its exuberant detail, which illustrates the building’s use of a popular and significant style in American architecture in the nineteenth century.”
The following building information was used in part by the Acton Historical Commission in its application for National Register status:
Exchange Hall stands on gently sloping land near the base of Great Hill (formally called Prospect Hill). In front of it is a stone watering trough erected in 1896 by the Reform Club. The building is set back an average of 15 ft. from the east line of Main Street running north from Quimby Square.
Exchange Hall faces Quimby Square, which was formerly called Exchange Square and South Acton Square. Until the location of Main Street was altered in 1906, it formed the architectural termination of the approach to the Square from the railroad to the South. It is surrounded by a mixture of 18th through 20th century residential and commercial buildings. To the east it is flanked by the house built for Varnum Tuttle, one of the partners of Tuttles, Jones, and Wetherbee Company. To the north, the Jones Tavern and the bracketed Central Hall, formerly the tailor shop of Tuttles, Jones, and Wetherbee. To the south, across School Street is the former South Acton Fire House, built in 1926 in the old Main Street roadway. Next door the former grocery store of Tuttles, Jones, and Wetherbee stood until 1989 when it was destroyed in a 5-alarm fire on September 6th.
It has a pitched roof with south and north gable ends. A two-stage, hipped roof cupola is at the south end. The roof is covered with slates, presumably original. The building has its original exterior covering, principally clapboards. The foundation is also original, brick on the south side, and elsewhere dressed stone above grade and rubble stone where it does not show.
All decorative detail is a rich interpretation of the Bracketted-Italianate style. The cornices at portico, piazza, and roofs are composed of scrolled and paneled brackets, each with a turned drop. Corner pilasters, square piers and columns have recessed, arched top Italianate panels let into the sides. Window surrounds are plain with crown cornices.
The two-stage cupola surmounting the peak of the gable has a louvered round-headed opening in each side of the second stage, which has corner pilasters and bracketed cornice. Above the third story windows, there was a sign containing the words “EXCHANGE HALL” in gilded wooden letters. Until 1867, a rectangular sign was placed below the windows. It stated the original name of the company, JAMES TUTTLE AND CO. The otherwise blank frieze between the piers at second story level formerly had gilded letters naming the goods sold within.
The interior retains a large proportion of its simple woodwork. The chief ornaments of the hall, the moulded plaster ceiling rosettes, was obscured by a building code which ordered a suspended ceiling. With the current restoration one 6 ft. ceiling rosette has been uncovered and restored. On the third story is a spring floor, one of only two remaining in New England.
The original interior arrangement consisted of open retail store space in the first and second stories, with small rooms adjoining at the north end, those in the first story for offices and those in the second for sleeping rooms for the night guards.
At the north end of the third story and at one end of the spring dance floor is a platform, used for speakers and orchestras. At the opposite end toward the south is a balcony, located over a kitchen. The bulk of the interior finish on the third floor is evidently original.
The rich and exuberant architectural detail of Exchange Hall reflects the prosperity and optimism of the Railroad Era, which was a leading factor behind the success of the company that built it; and in providing a meeting house for South Acton’s first religious society a central community meeting place, it reflects 19th century trends of interest in social improvement. In it’s sitting (in terms of the former layout of the Square), it shows an emerging awareness, in a then rural situation, of the use of architecture as an element in community planning.
With the exception of the loss of the entrance steps, and the removal of the window blinds, the exterior retains virtually all of its original material.
Tradition says that the Company’s partners planned the building collaboratively and suggests that Elnathan Jones, Jr., the architecturally minded one of them, had the guiding hand in designing it. Tradition also says that a joiner named Fletcher, from Stow, made the window sashes and frames. Exchange Hall was built at a cost of approximately $10,000.
South Acton in the mid 1800’s was a thriving, booming little town. Actonians had much to boast about during these decades since the expansion of material resources and manufactured goods increased miraculously. Throughout the country there was expansion. The total railroad mileage more than tripled from 9000 to 30,000 miles. More than 3000 newspapers were being read by large numbers of people, and because of the Associated Press (which began in 1848) these people read the same news at the same time.
In nearby Concord, some of America’s greatest authors,
Emerson, Hawthorne, Alcott, and Thoreau…. were producing classics. Leisure had become an end in itself, and country folk such as Actonians sought amusement in square dancing, country fairs, and circuses. Business was beginning to thrive as people earned more money and had more to spend.
In South Acton there lived a young man just out of his teens who was destined to become a big business man in the area. According to Fletcher’s Acton In History, “James Tuttle began trade on his own account in 1839. A couple of years at Mill Corner and three at Acton Centre, and he was ready to start with his brother at the South Village, which had just been reached by a railroad from Boston. Being aware of the possibilities offered by the completion of this railroad, he and his brother Varnum formed a partnership under the name of J. and V. Tuttle. James was then 25 and Varnum 21. Between the post office and the station, which stood about on the location of the northern abutments of the bridge today, they built their first store. It was a one story affair, which was subsequently remolded and made higher so that it housed several shops, one or more dwellings units, and later the dental offices and apartment of Dr. Ernest Hosmer.
Fletcher further states, “These young men started with good pluck and a will to succeed but with little idea of the great possibilities of their future.” The railroad terminus was then at West Acton and all things seemed to favor that village. Long after they started, trade went past them to the prosperous concern of Burbeck and Tenney. West Acton was then called Horse-Power Village, and South Acton nothing but Mill Corner where merged a half dozen roads from Boxborough, Acton Centre, Westford, Sudbury, and Stow. West Acton was a stage, South Acton only a saw and grist mill center. But this too would change.
In 1850, the Tuttles moved to their new store on the site of the grocery store, which stood next to the firehouse. Eight clerks were hired to work there, namely Elnathan Jones, J.K.W. Wetherbee, Zoeth Taylor, Cyrus Hayward, Henry Brown, Hiram Hapgood, James Stearns, and Jennie Tuttle. Jennie, who was not married, filled the front window next to the road with flowers, especially geraniums, and canary birds. In the other window, Jennie Faulkner had a millinery display, while Elnathan Jones, who was interested in jewelry, had a large glass showcase filled with silverware and jewelry. Family notes state that “people came from miles around and cleaned the showcase right out.”
In 1852, James and Varnum took into their business, Elnathan Jones, who at 22 years of age had married their sister, Eliza. He became the head of the tailor shop, which stood next to Jones Tavern. He employed a cutter, pressman, and five or six girls sewing. He sold custom and ready made clothing. Vests and trousers were all cut there but ladies throughout the town sewed them. He used to drive a carriage and horse to Gardner, Ashburnham, Framingham, and Lowell delivering clothing.
In 1867, another partner, J.K.W. Wetherbee, having married a second sister, was added, and the partnership became the firm of Tuttles, Jones, and Wetherbee. Fletcher says, “James Tuttle was always a shrewd and jolly helmsman, and when he set his craft on these waters, he was bound to steer straight to the destined port.” This proved to be true.
Elnathan Jones’s wish was to build a large store, so he drew plans and in 1860, the large dry goods store on the hill, Exchange Hall, was built by Tuttles, Jones, and Wetherbee. This firm was to be the closest knit and one of the most successful enterprises in Acton’s history. In the early years, it did a business of $25,000 annually. This gradually grew until it grossed over a quarter of a million dollars. For about three decades this venture was an unqualified success, but then the old guard vanished from the scene, and later merchandisers were confronted by the fact that industrial Maynard had arisen with a competing shopping center, and that the automobile made transportation to it and other town in a matter of minutes. However, the establishment of Tuttles, Jones, and Wetherbee, forerunner of the department store idea, was, from about 1850 –1900, the most extensive of its kind in Middlesex County, west of Waltham.
Exchange Hall was built to provide the focal point for their group of stores, as well as retail and storage space for their dry goods and clothing, and furniture and home furnishings departments, of which Jones was in charge. Mrs. Anna Tuttle Newton, daughter of James Tuttle, kept the records for the enterprise. In excerpts from her records, she states, “The central or dry goods store is in the charge of Mr. Jones while the buying is done by himself and Mr. Wetherbee. Mr. Hiram Hapgood has charge of the office and attends to the collections and books. Mr. James Tuttle and his son Waldo Tuttle have charge of the grocery store. The extensive meat and produce business of the firm also centers here. Four butcher carts go out daily and these and the general delivery teams run every day to the Acton villages, Maynard, and West Concord.
The buying for the grocery and produce store is all done by Mr. Varnum Tuttle, who is in the Boston market daily making his purchases. The firm has four farms, two in Acton, and one each in Stow and Littleton, upon which are raised most of the vegetables sold on the routes. James Tuttle has charge of the farming on all but one of the farms. Milk production is quite a specialty. Considerable pasturage is owned in Antrim, New Hampshire where the young stock is kept. Over a dozen horses are kept at work and the regular employees number about thirty while many more are hired by the job.”
The firm continued thus until the death of James Tuttle in 1898 when Waldo Tuttle and Theron Newton continued the grocery business as Tuttle and Newton. J.S. Moore took over the meat and provisions, while Elnathan Jones kept the dry goods and furniture store. Tuttles, Jones, and Wetherbee advertised their firm widely. Invoices and receipts attest to the great variety of products sold. Here we have examples of receipts from August 1, 1887, September 4, 1890, and January 11, 1905, wherein they advertised Foreign and Domestic Dry Goods, carpets, furniture, feathers, crockery, and glassware. Pictured are the Household Sewing Machine and the Mason and Hamlin Organs.
They also circulated a brochure, which listed a complete line of inventory. On the front, Exchange Hall was pictured and inside a note…”To our Friends, Patrons, and The Public:
Our object in issuing this Catalogue is not particularly for the benefit of our regular customers, but more especially to interest those who have never had occasion to visit us. People are continually changing their place of residence and that all may know that our house is the OLDEST and our ASSORTMENT THE LARGEST to be found in this vicinity and that every thing in our immense Stock will be sold at the lowest living prices and that many articles will be sold regardless of cost, is our motive in presenting you this book. We will not attempt to particularize everything we keep, but some idea may be obtained by perusing the following pages.”
Then they go on to list many items under these headings:
IN OUR GROCERY DEPARTMENT
BREAD AND PASTRY FRESH EVERY DAY.
IN OUR FURNITURE DEPARTMENT
WALLPAPER AND BORDERS IN CHOICE DESIGNS AND GREAT VARIETY
OUR DRY GOODS DEPARTMENT
BOOTS SHOES AND RUBBERS
We are also agents for….
The Malden Dye House,
The Waltham Steam Laundry,
The Easy Running Helpmate and Household Sewing Machines,
The Eddy and Alaska Refrigerators,
And the Mason and Hamlin Organs and Pianos.
Any article not found in our stock will be furnished at short notice.
Finally, we feel confident we can make it for your interest to call and see us before purchasing. We are here to work and will cheerfully show you through our stock, whether you purchase or not.
Very truly yours,
Tuttles, Jones & Wetherbee
Elnathan Jones carried on the dry goods and furniture store in Exchange Hall until 1906 when Smith Finney and Frank Hoit bought him out. Both Messers Finney and Hoit were employed by the old firm for a number of years. They were successful in maintaining an up-to-date store and catered to a large number of customers in Acton and out-of-town. They carried a line of goods seldom found in a town the size of Acton. Much of their merchandise had name brands such as Worcester Corsets, New Home Sewing Machines, Glenwood Ranges and Heaters, Regina Vacuum Cleaners, and United States Tires. They were the first agency for Butterick Patterns.
While most Acton ladies shopped for their clothing at the South Acton store, one lady did not. Doris Goodwin in her book, The Fitzgeralds and The Kennedys, states that the Hannons were among the poorest residents in the Town of Acton and then quotes Geraldine Hannon who said, “There was always a great pride and sense of grandeur in the Hannon women. Even Grandmother Hannon, with the little money they had, insisted on going to Jordan Marsh for her clothes instead of to the country store of Tuttles, Jones, and Wetherbee where almost everyone else in the town bought their clothes – along with their hemp carpets, spring beds, Alaska refrigerators, and ice chests. Grandmother insisted on style”. Grandmother, of course, was Josie Hannon Fitzgerald, mother of Rose Kennedy and grandmother of JFK.
Finney and Hoit continued to operate their store in Exchange Hall until 1933 when Mr. Hoit died. From 1933 to 1950, when the business was finally closed, it was carried on under the name of SOUTH ACTON DEPARTMENT STORE by Otis Reed, son-in-law of Mrs. Carrie Evelyn Kimball, who had inherited the building from her father, Elnathan Jones. During this time also, the South Acton Branch of the Memorial Library was housed here.
The South Acton Department Store inventoried a general line of goods from candy to clothing, fabric by the yard, curtains, shades, shoes and rubbers. Jane Bulete remembers that during the flood of 1936, water ran off Great Hill and flooded the cellar so that all the rubbers and shoes were floating. Otis Reed opened the door and the water rushed out in a stream across School Street.
During World War II, Mrs. Evelyn Reed operated the business in Exchange Hall with the help of her two daughters, while Mr. Reed worked at Moore’s Market across the street. The South Acton Department Store drew customers from Acton and surrounding towns. It weathered the depression of the thirties and the war in the forties. With the advent of more automobiles, and the building of suburban malls, business dwindled and it closed its doors as a general store in 1950.
In 1953, Wilber and Lucius Tolman bought the building in order to expand their dry cleaning business, which was housed in Maynard. Eventually David Allen Associates moved into the second floor where they assembled plastic containers and other plastic products for flowers. A young woman rented the third floor hall where she taught physical fitness classes and the art of dance.
Glenn Berger purchased Exchange Hall from Wilbur Tolman in 1984, and it became the office and workshop for ACTON WOODWORKS, INC., a residential design-build firm with a kitchen and bath showroom, and custom woodworking shop. Glenn worked for several years as the kitchen and bath designer for the PBS series “This Old House”.
The interior of the building has been renovated on all floors. As one enters on the ground floor, he sees a kitchen and bath showroom and the design offices for Acton Woodworks, Inc. An exterior staircase to the side leads to the first floor where the cabinets and other furniture are actually built. The second floor is occupied by art studios and a gallery. Fully renovated, the third floor is again a beautiful dance hall.
While Exchange Hall was built primarily as a department store, the third story hall was intended for the community use of South Acton, serving a number of functions. It was the meeting house for the South Acton Universalist Church from 1861–1878 when a church was erected. The minister sat on a sofa, which is currently located in Jones Tavern. From the beginning into the 20th century, the Hall was used for dances, concerts, lectures, campaign meetings, caucuses, conventions, local theatrical productions, and traveling shows among others. Two noted lecturers who used the Hall were Henry David Thoreau in the 1860’s and Henry Ward Beecher in the 1870’s. It was the site of many visits of Honey Fitz (Fitzgerald), ex-mayor of Boston, Congressman, and grandfather of President Kennedy. Honey Fitz sang “Sweet Adeline” from the Hall stage on several occasions.
A spring dance floor, installed in the late 1800’s, has never needed repair since it was built. It is one of the last remaining in New England, another being in Hamilton Hall in Salem and a restored one at the Wayside Inn in Sudbury, which does not have much spring. However, according to an article in Yankee Magazine which described Exchange Hall’s floor, “When dancing couples moved together there, the floor rose and fell like ocean waves.” In order to heat the third floor hall as well as the store, two furnaces were needed, one for the hall and another for the store.
Acton was a dancing town: In the 1860’s, 70’s, and 1880’s, annual Thanksgiving Balls were held in Exchange Hall where quadrilles, waltzes, and polkas were directed from the floor by Lucius Hosmer, Theron Newton, Sanford Wheeler, and Neil Currie, among others. Orchestras from Boston including Brigham’s Full Orchestra, Grey’s Orchestra, Carter’s Band, and the Germania Orchestra of Boston provided music. In February, annual Masquerade and Fancy Dress Balls were held, and in April there were Social Dances, especially on the 19th. On January 13, 1885, the Royal Arcanum Grand Ball was held with Brigham’s Orchestra playing. None of these dances were restricted to weekends.
In the 1920’s and 30’s, dances were held in Exchange Hall at least two nights a week. O’Leary’s Irish Minstrels, a popular dance band from Boston, frequently performed. A crystal ball hanging from the center of the ceiling revolved and sent lights flickering among the dancers, often as many as 200. It was a beautiful sight. The Hannon sisters from South Acton attended regularly, along with singles and couples from Acton and other towns.
During the 1930’s and 40’s, there were dances twice a week in Exchange Hall, another night at the Odd Fellows Hall on Central Street in West Acton, and still another at the Town Hall. Nearly everyone went stag, and the dances were crowded. At Exchange Hall, The Battle of the Bands occurred, wherein two bands, each playing for half hour stints, vied to see who would win the title of “Best Band”, when at the end of the evening the dancers voted. The hall was so crowded that late comers couldn’t get in. At the two hundredth anniversary of Acton’s incorporation, a Grand Military Ball was held on Monday, July 22, 1935 with music furnished by the Liner Broadcasting Orchestra.
There were sad as well as happy times in the third floor hall, however. On three occasions, gentlemen are know to have died while dancing there…a barber, a man from Boxborough, and Mr. Rawitzer, owner of the Shoddy Mills in South Acton. Mr. Rawitzer’s death occurred during the South Acton Athletic Association’s Dance where everyone was having such a good time that the band agreed to play for an extra hour. This was too much for Mr. Rawitzer who weighed over 200 pounds. Dr. Tuttle, who lived next door, was called but he wouldn’t come, saying, “Any damned fool who would dance like that doesn’t need attention.”
After one dance, a fabric mat on the second landing of the staircase aught fire. A policeman passing saw flames going up the stairs and was able to put out the fire. After that, metal mats were used.
In the 1960’s, the popularity of dancing decreased, and public dances on a regular basis ceased at Exchange Hall. In the spring of 1973, Doc McNiff decided to revive the Saturday night dances so he hired Steve Tolman’s Band, among others, and once again the spring floor swayed with dancers. Sandwiches and soft drinks were served from the kitchen. This continued for about two years, until on night, a young man who lived nearby apparently didn’t like the sound of the music, and proceeded to shoot arrows at the building. One sliced through a third floor window and hit Moose Pyro in the neck. The music stopped and dancers scurried for cover. The Acton police were called with the message, “A dancer at Exchange Hall has been hit by an arrow.” Thinking this was a joke, the policeman asked, “What is the name of the dancer?” “Moose Pyro”. Policeman, “You’ve got to be kidding!!” However, he checked it out and did indeed find Mr. Pyro with an arrow lodged in his neck. This incident contributed to the demise of Exchange Hall’s public dances.
The 4th of July was always eagerly awaited in Acton. Weeks before, the men and boys collected old railroad ties and wooden boxes to light fires at midnight. The bell in the cupola of Exchange Hall would be rung madly, the boys showing their ingenuity by gaining access to the rope if someone would let them in the building. During the 1930’s Otis Reed and Bing Priest did a voluminous business selling fireworks from a stand set up in front of the Hall.
Carnivals also set up in this location each summer. Wheels for gambling were stationed under the porch. Other activities went on in the square, and Steve Bray’s orchestra played on the third floor.
For over 150 years, Exchange Hall has been a vital part of the economic and social life of Acton. With the buildings complete restoration in 2009 Exchange Hall continues to be a vital part of the economic and social life of Acton, a focal point of South Acton Village and a symbol for all of Acton.