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Local preservationist parts the curtains into Alexandria's past

The Grand Curtain, though faded over the years, still proves to be grand after being refurbished in the Alexandria Town Hall. This curtain was painted by J.B. Duffy of Derry in the early 1900’s. (Courtesy) (click for larger version)
March 07, 2012
ALEXANDRIA— When you think of a town hall, chances are you don't think of a hub for cultural events or gatherings; you think of the town clerk, taxes and selectmen.

Alexandra's Town hall houses three roll drop curtains proving that once, many years ago, this town hall was a gathering place for culture and even art.

"Town halls were very much a center for the town," said Nancy Whitman, a member of the Alexandria Historical Society. "A lot of the town halls housed the grange, and it became a place where plays were done and any sort of cultural activities might take place."

The Alexandra Town Hall burnt down during the summer of 1913, and the new building, which is the current building, was erected that fall, helping town historians try to date the roll drop curtains.

"The building burnt, was rebuilt, and was dedicated on Jan. 1, 1914, so we know these curtains were after that," said Whitman. "We haven't actually been able to find anything that tells us when these were done. Part of that is because the building itself was owned by the town, as it is now, and the grange provided a lease or some exchange of funds for using it. I suspect that these curtains were done as an expense to the grange, and when Cardigan Grange disbanded, they sent all of their data to the state or national grange, so we are unsure if there is any information about these curtains with the state or national grange."

Artists would come in and, on a giant, stage sized canvas, paint a scene that was typically not local. Some towns had only a few of these roll drop curtains, while other towns may have had ten or more, depending on the town.

"We have three curtains, and we have been trying to preserve them since, for a number of years, they couldn't even be rolled down because the fabric was so fragile that there was concern that they were going to tear," said Whitman.

The restoration process was a long and tedious one that was a group effort between Whitman, the historical society and Curtains Without Borders.

"We had to take each one of them down, and then we had to create a really large work space so we could take each curtain and roll them out across the work surface," said Whitman. "Then it was a matter of very tedious work. We had little chip paint brushes to dust the curtains, front and back. We got to the point where we were dusting and the paint was coming off, so we said we'd stop and just do the best we can."

After dusting the canvas, some tears and rips needed to be patched to keep the curtain as whole and well preserved as possible.

"There was patching that we needed to do because the bottom roller was wooden, and the way that it was put together, there were nails in it," Whitman noted. "So over the years, with humidity and what not, that had caused rust, and that, in turn, had caused holes in the fabric. We used Beva, which is almost like a tape that is not sticky, but when you heat it up, the heat generates fusion."

Other minor touchups were done to the curtains to preserve their color and keep them from any further damage or fraying.

"We also had to put new edging on so it could go up and down easily without catching because some of the edges were frayed," said Whitman. "We also had some touch up work done by an artist that was with Curtains Without Borders, just enough to kind of even it all out."

Though the curtains have been restored to the best condition possible, there are still some effects of aging, most noticeably color.

"These are the original, and what is really interesting is that back when they were painted, no one knew anything about the effect of UV rays from the sun and that type of thing, so we found out that from so much sun exposure, the colors have changed over the years," said Whitman. "During the preservation process, when we took off the old facing, you could see underneath what the real colors were. They were kind of Vaudeville reds and blues."

The front curtain, or Grand Curtain, elaborately depicting "The Ledges" in Alexandra, led Whitman on a hunt back in time to find more information about these curtains and their painters, ultimately leading her to talk to decedents of the artist that painted the Grand Curtain.

"What we ended up discovering was that there was a signature on the bottom (of the Grand Curtain) saying it was painted by J.B. Duffy from Derry, New Hampshire," said Whitman. "So I started contacting the Derry Historical Society asking for information, and time passed, and I hadn't heard anything. One day, I got this e-mail from one of Duffy's granddaughters saying they knew their grandfather had done this, but had never seen his work. So I invited them to come see it."

Through meeting with some of Duffy's family members, Whitman was able to piece together some of the artist's history.

"What we were able to discover talking to them is that the original picture was done by Duffy, and hangs in the Derry Historical Society Building," said Whitman. "He replicated it here, but what his connection to this area is, we don't know. Duffy, we later learned, was the individual who later on created the Shell Oil symbol."

The second curtain was much different than the Grand Curtain, looking more like a restaurant place mat, according to Whitman.

"You know how you go into your local restaurant, and they have advertising place mats?" said Whitman. "This is the predecessor to that. Advertising space was sold to businesses in town to help pay for these curtains. You might see this curtain during intermission, or as a scene with something happening in front of it, but these were all businesses in the local area, and some of them are still around today."

Whitman was also curious about the artist of the second curtain, who was well known throughout New England for his downtown street template.

"This was painted by a man by the name of A.S. Ives, and he has done many of these across New England," said Whitman. "A way to tell it was him is that each once has a blimp. This curtain was pretty much a template that he would then put names in. There may have been a difference in details with the color, but other than that, they were all the same."

The third curtain, Whitman thinks, may have been created at a different time due to its condition and some of the components.

"The one in the back wasn't necessarily in bad condition, but may have been made at a different time," suggested Whitman. "We believe the third one was done by a school teacher in town. The fabric was a little different, and it was less stable."

With the roll drop curtains being preserved, there is a hope that this will be the beginning of preserving the entire Alexandria Town Hall to keep it as close to its 1914 form as possible.

"The intent is to preserve the entire building, and preserving the curtains was probably the most expensive component of it, but these were something that the largest number of people were interested in doing; we were able to make more of a case for getting it done," said Whitman. "There were a lot of ham and bean dinners that were served to do this. Also, fortunately, with my involvement with the historical society, they were able to put some money out so we could go ahead and do it. But there are things we still need to do, as well."

With the Town Hall in pretty good shape, Whitman has her eye on two more preservation projects: a new floor and restoration of the windows.

"The floors will be more costly, but these are the original floors, and they have been sanded down so much over the years that they can't be sanded anymore," said Whitman.

Restoring the windows will be less costly, and the windows would not need to be replaced, just refurbished.

"We don't need new windows; these windows are the originals, and they are good heavy windows," said Whitman. "Some need new glass panels, and they need new glazing and frames. I hope to get new window curtains up because these have been here since the bicentennial in the 1970's."

To continue preserving the Town Hall, Whitman is selling raffle tickets for two locally made preservation quilts which honor and remember the history of Alexandria. Tickets will be on sale until March 31 for $2 each, three tickets for $5, or seven tickets for $10. To purchase tickets, please contact Whitman at 744-3596. Tickets will also be on sale on March 13, Election Day, at the site of the polls.

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