Tell City's City Hall Building

Taken from a paper by Bert Fenn entitle "A. P. Fenn", presented to the Tell City Historical Society, April 1963.

A. P. Fenn left two monuments in Tell City. One is the Tell City Chair Company; the other is our city hall. And, of course, there's a story behind the city hall.

Grandfather served as mayor of Tell City from January 19, 1892 to May 10, 1898. It was during this time that the county felt a need for a new court house. Certainly the court house at Cannelton was old and inadequate. But there was a problem in that the majority of the people in the county objected to a tax raise to pay for a new building.

In 1895, A. P. conceived a way to solve this problem. If Tell City were to build a court house and donate it to the county, Perry County would receive the necessary facilities without an addition to its tax levy, and Tell City would be compensated by becoming the county seat.

So Tell City Mayor A.P. Fenn determined to build that court house, though, of course he called it a "city hall". Exactly how he built it is perhaps best explained in the city council minutes.

The very first mention of a new city hall in the council minutes was on November 12, 1895 when councilman Kampshaefer, and I quote, "resolved that we build a foundation for a city hall on the block bounded by Mozart and Jefferson, and 8th and 9th Streets." This carried. Then by a strange coincidence, again quoting, "the city engineer was called upon and submitted a plan and the specifications for a foundation to be built out of stone." These were approved. Again quoting, "Mr. Kiefer now moved that the clerk be directed to advertise for sealed proposals," which carried. Finally, of course, the formality of appointing a committee to confer with city engineer George H. Freese regarding the cost of these plans and specifications was also taken care of.

The contract for this foundation was let on December 10, 1895 for $3250.00 following which, and I quote, "the clerk was upon motion directed to file all papers pertaining to the building of the foundation for a city hall in the office of the city mayor," end quote.

This was the first of 22 contracts that are mentioned in the council minutes which applied to the building of a new "City Hall."

In April 1896 they awarded a contract for building "the super structure of the new city hall." In June they changed the chimneys. By August the council voted to put a subfloor in the attic and later that same month to add a tower to the city hall.

In November 1896 they let a $37.80 contract "to build inlets to the cellar entrances" and another contract for "first and second story floors of first class yellow pine." Also in November they accepted bids "for finishing one room in the city hall."

Other contracts were for "placing of stud partitions and grounds for plastering," for stone stairways on three sides of the building, and for plastering the city hall.

On May 25, 1897 the council held its first meeting in the new city hall -- in the one room that was finished -- and while they were letting a $1680.00 contract for, quote, "the interior finish of the city hall," end quote, they were serenaded by both the Mechanic's Silver Band and the Star Silver Band.

On June 10, 1897 the mayor and all councilmen signed a petition to the Perry County Board of Commissioners offering "a perfect, complete and valid deed...to (an) almost complete...large and suitable building...adapted to the purposes of a Court House...for a nominal consideration." The building was to be ready in sixty days.

Fort it wasn't yet complete. At this point they had signed only sixteen contracts. In July they built two outhouses, in August contracted for, quote, "some additional improvements about the city hall," end quote, and in September had Jack Lowry digging a well on the premises.

By October 26 it was getting cold, so they authorized $19.75 to buy a stove to heat the council chamber. The last two contracts were in February and March of 1898 for furnishing offices for the Mayor and City Treasurer. And when they reached this point, I'm sure that the good citizens of Tell City heaved a collective sigh of relief.

As nearly as I can tell from the Treasurer's reports, the building cost roughly $24,000. When they started building, the cash on hand in the City Corporation Fund was $872.62. Eight months later the treasurer reported not one cent in the corporate Fund. Total income for the city at the time was running about eight to nine thousand dollars per year. The Clerk's Report and Treasurer's Report for the year ending May 10, 1897 showed an income of some $8,000 and an expenditure of some $8,000 -- but vouchers had been issued for some $23,000 leaving "protested and outstanding " $14,770.23. It was after this report, while they were having the first meeting in the city hall, that a Cincinnati firm finally sent word that everything was in order and they were prepared to accept delivery of Tell City's $12,000 5% bond issue.

During this building period, several of the councilmen threatened to resign and two others finally did resign. One night, A. P. recessed the meeting, sending the marshall to bring in an absent councilman. He came in, voted his "nay", but it was on record.

Also during this building period, the council continued a program of grading and graveling city streets, they lay sewers and culverts, bought a city scale and installed the first electric streets lights. And strangest of all, sparred for two years with the school board who seemed badly to need more school rooms.

The school board finally did receive the use of six rooms in the city hall "for school purposes." For, of course, the county did not accept this new court house.

As De La Hunt reports, as soon as Tell City started building a city hall, the citizens of Cannelton raised money in their community to build a court house. They started later than Tell City, but finished first. And since the county received a new court house without cost and without the legal process and fuss of voting to relocate it, the county seat remained in Cannelton. Tell City's so called "City Hall" remained a city hall.

Some people say that A.P. was outmaneuvered in this court house race. I believe with many that he built the city hall solely to force Cannelton's hand. Tell City was growing up and needed a city hall. Built his way, half of it it was free, for Tell City would have contributed that much had the court house appeared on the county tax levy. He knew all along that one floor could be used for school rooms while the city was growing up to the building. And he was enough of a gambler to simply have to cover the long shot that if Cannelton did not come through when they chips were down, Tell City would be prepared to accept the county seat for a substantial civic gain.

But the symbol of defeat or victory, our city hall is A.P. Fenn's building and one of the marks he left in Tell City. And I must add that it has served the city well these many years.

From a letter from Charles Schreiber:

Sept 12, 1989

Cathy:

After talking to Bert [Fenn] last night I realized his paper only had to do with the building of City Hall. Let me add this for you.

For a long time the building was really a white elephant. Entirely too large for a city hall, but they used it right along for many purposes besides the City Government. At various times and for various reasons it was used for extra school rooms. I went to school there in my grade school days for 2 1/2 years while Newman was being built. The first library was in the city hall. The 3rd floor (which I'm sure will not be on the tour) was the gym. Here is where basketball started. This area was also used by various athletic groups. Various churches used part of it for a time, headquarters for the Red Cross and others during the 1937 flood. Little Theatre group used parts of the building. All sorts of committees used the building over the years. Many bands practiced there. I'm sure there were other uses that I do not recall. The jail was in the SW corner on the first or ground level floor.

The block that the building sits on was also important and very interesting history. I have made a copy of some of my notes of the city square or Market Square as it was first called as the original Market house sat on this location, along with the first Main Street of Tell City. The plank road ran through where the driveways are now. Picnics, political rallys and band concerts were held in the park.

I hope I haven't confused you with this but I think it important.

Also the records were all in German up until 1883 or so.

Chas. Schreiber