Jourgensen: Swampscott Town Hall tales and tails

This staircase in Swampscott Town Hall is the original from when it was the Thomson residence. (Owen O'Rourke)

They moved stealthily along the corridors, slipped around a corner and in a single, deft movement, leapt onto one of Swampscott Town Hall’s ornamental carved mantels.

The year was 1945, and humans frequented Elihu Thomson’s former mansion-turned-seat of government, but tiger cats “Ike” and “Mike” were the hall’s residents.

The pair were shivering orphans, according to a 1948 Daily Evening Item story, when former town Chief Custodian John G. McLearn rescued the brothers and sheltered them from the cold in Town Hall.

The cats quickly made themselves at home, fattening up on canned horse meat supplied by McLearn, and unlucky mice. They sought out all available laps, settling in and purring away as Swampscott residents and officials conducted town business.

The Thomson mansion was only one of the cats’ residents. McLearn’s wife, Swampscott school teacher Flora Boynton, took the felines on weekly visits to her hometown of Pepperell.

The cats went on to live in the McLearn’s Mapledale Place house and a photograph of the pair donated by the Item hung in Town Hall for several years.

Ike and Mike took up residence in Town Hall a year after the town bought the Thomson mansion for $30,000. Town Meeting voted overwhelmingly to approve the purchase in April 1944 and allocated almost $30,000 additional money to pay for work required to convert the building from a residence to a municipal building.

The purchase’s solid Town Meeting endorsement did not reflect Planning Board views. A majority of board members considered the renovation appropriation a waste of money.

“They suggested that if the property be purchased, that the buildings be torn down and a new building erected at some future post-war date,” reported the Daily Evening Item on April 12, 1944.

Valued for years by the town Board of Assessors at $93,600, the mansion’s assessment dove to $72,300 in 1943, putting the home within reach for purchase by the town.

A pioneer in General Electric’s founding, Thomson lived in the mansion until his death in 1937. He commissioned the building’s construction in 1890 and his sons, following his death, told town officials their father preferred, according to the Item, to see “… the place preserved publicly …”

To their credit, members of the town committee tasked with finding a successor to the town hall built in 1860, understood the value of preserving the mansion as a book end to the hilly, landscaped subdivision carved out of the former Mudge estate by preeminent landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead.

The mansion’s renovation included dismantling Thomson’s home observatory with its revolving dome. Sold to the College of the Holy Cross for a nominal dollar, the observatory headed to Worcester without its telescope. The Item reported Thomson’s widow had the viewing device removed following his death.

The Thomson mansion enjoyed a revival of sorts in the early 1980s when Selectman Robert E. Perry and town custodian Edward Riccio conducted a detailed building survey and found roof holes and cracked front portico pillars.

Their examination revealed a building that had seen better days, with loose bricks jutting out from Town Hall’s foundation; an ornate column head missing its body and a drainage network in need of new flashing, downspouts and gutters.

Sylvia Belkin, a tireless agent for good in Swampscott, jumped in to help propel forward a plan to raise money for the repairs after Perry’s and Riccio’s investigation spurred an initial $3,000 appropriation to pay for an architect.

By August 1981 a restoration committee was hard at work with $70,000 — not a small sum almost 40 years ago — to pay for repairs. The work paid off:

With Swampscott receiving one of only 11 state preservation awards in 1983 for the Thomson building’s restoration.

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