Photos by Lauren Thomas
New Paltz’s new, temporary Town Hall isn’t going to win any architecture or interior design awards. Inside and out, it looks pretty much like what it is: six trailers riveted together to create a bare-bones, utilitarian space for offices. Its contours are boxy, its materials industrial, its aesthetics decidedly unappealing. Yet the municipal employees who call it their workday home couldn’t be more gleeful, now that they’re finally moved in and the heat, phones and electricity are all working. It’s rather amazing how significantly a long-running assault on one’s health like breathing black mold spores and toxic gases can reorder one’s priorities.
“It’s like an oasis,” said buildings department assistant Helen Christie as the New Paltz Times was given a tour of the modular structure, located on the grounds of the Highway Department facility at 3 Clearwater Road, during the first week that it was open to the public. “It’s like coming out of a cave and into the sun.”
“You come in here and you can breathe!” exulted town bookkeeper Arlene Weber, adding that in her office in the mold-contaminated old Town Hall, she had suffered from “constant” health symptoms including headaches, eye irritations and coughing.
Town supervisor Susan Zimet, who was conducting the tour, reported that water and sewer billing clerk Krissy Granieri claimed to have been able to work more effectively in her first day in the new space than in three days in the old one, in spite of the fact that employees needed to work with their coats on for several days before the heating system was finally fully operational. “I never realized how stale and dense the air was in the old Town Hall until we moved in here,” said Zimet. “I walked in and said, ‘Omigod, I’m breathing air!’ It was the most noticeable thing when you walked in the door.”
The supervisor had nothing but praise for her team, who managed the entire process of creating and equipping a new space, packing, moving, unpacking and getting back in business in the short space of two-and-a-half months from the time when the grim verdict of air tests at the old Town Hall was delivered. Although there were some glitches with the new telephone system and delays with electrical installation when the initial equipment proved inadequate to the building’s power needs, Zimet seemed very pleased with how expeditiously the massive-scale move had been handled. “It went pretty well because people worked damn hard. Stacy Delarede and Chris Marx should be knighted, honestly, for what they did,” she said, with obvious pride in the town’s building inspector and buildings and grounds superintendent.
It’s probably only a matter of time before the glow of this vastly improved working environment will start to wear off, but the town has only committed itself to a two-year lease on the modular structures while officials and a volunteer Building Committee search for a more permanent home. Space needs assessments already conducted have projected a need for much more space than the 6,400 square feet provided by the modulars, especially since the justice court is also in urgent need of a new home.
Offices in the temporary Town Hall are not spacious, with staff who formerly had private offices now having to cram two or three desks into a single room. “We’ve gotten very close,” Zimet joked. And even with many contaminated documents from the old Town Hall’s dead storage areas being stored offsite rather than cleaned, some files are being kept in two unheated storage units adjacent to the new building, the assessor’s office file cabinets now line a hallway and some building department files will find a home along the walls of the conference room.
Most of the offices line the outer perimeter of the building, some with one small window and a few larger ones with two. Though they look out on the most coveted view of the Shawangunk Ridge, those along the western side are slated to have their windows covered with metal grates because they face directly onto the town’s Little League ballfield. Zimet is taking inspiration from the anticipated close proximity of young athletes to propose the organization of a softball team of Town Hall and highway department employees.
The part of the new Town Hall that the general public is most likely to need to visit is also the part with no windows at all, situated on the interior side of the hallways: the offices of the town clerk. Nonetheless, their reception area is surprisingly spacious, with ample seating for waiting residents and a long counter with a lowered central section to accommodate persons in wheelchairs. Indeed, the entire building is handicapped-accessible: a posthumous victory for the late disability rights advocate Gale McGovern, who long battled for the right of mobility-impaired Paltzonians to attend town and village Board meetings.
“Trailer Town Hall,” as Zimet has called her staff’s temporary home, may never feel homey, but already an effort is underway to make it less homely. In order to soften the harsh, angular look of the building’s interior, one enterprising employee picked up some discarded items from the Reuse Center next door — a small round occasional table, some brightly printed fabric to use as a tablecloth, an old pitcher that serves as a vase and some artificial flowers to stick in it — and promptly set them up in the entry area of the women’s bathroom nearest the front entrance. “Welcome to Town Hall,” these little touches seem to say, “where it’s now safe to breathe again!”