To many of our residents, the brick building at 31 West Broadway is where Eric Bodenrader, Nicole Ferrante, Justin Fairbanks and their cadre do such a great job in signing up, scheduling and coaching our children in town-sponsored sports. It’s also where lots of seniors go to walk or board busses for excursions.
It’s the home to a judo school, our Special Olympians and the incredible Red Star Twirlers. In 2010, the town fathers debated getting rid of the building but instead wisely decided to keep it, and thanks to a government grant its energy efficiency has been greatly improved. A new roof was put on in 2012, and the front stairs were repaired last week. It is a real town treasure.
The building is correctly called The Veterans Building, the result of locals of 1926 believing the town needed to honor veterans of all wars, including conflicts way back in colonial days. In 1923, Derry had erected a monument in front of the Adams Memorial Building with the names of the 290 local heroes who served in World War I — “The war to end all wars” — and we had the Civil War monument in East Derry. By 1926, we had two veterans organizations: the American Legion. founded in 1919, and the VFW, in 1926.
All that was great, but the First World War veterans were then young men and really wanted to have a gym where they could play basketball. The Adams building was good for shows and dances but not for shooting hoops. They could use the Upper Village Hall, but it had space for only half-court games.
Another benefit of such a building would be that it would have public toilets. Broadway was a very popular shopping destination in those pre-mall days. On pay days, thousands would descend on Broadway’s many stores. One Monday in 1926, one man went to the railroad depot to get out of the rain. During the hour he was there, he counted 13 men and women who came into use the station’s toilets but found them locked. The Boston and Maine Railroad only unlocked them when there was a train at the station. The observer figured that during the week there must have been hundreds of uncomfortable shoppers with “anxious expressions on their faces.”
Soon a committee was formed to plan for a building to honor our soldiers and sailors of nearly a dozen wars. They sought bids from contractors so they’d be ready to make a pitch to get funds at a future town meeting.
The committee approached the distinguished Boston architect Robert L. Stevenson to draw up a set of plans for a brick gym. He was best known for designing medium-size homes in the colonial revival style. The Shepard-Barka house in East Derry is typical of his style. With Stevenson’s plans in hand, the committee went to local builder Cyrus Martin to estimate its cost.
Prepared with all their facts and figures, they put in a warrant article for the 1928 town meeting. Overwhelmingly, the voters approved spending up to $50,000 for a building to serve as a memorial for veterans of all wars that our townsmen and women had fought.
The land was bought from the Fraternal Home Association of the Eagles for $6,000. Building began in May and was completed in just seven months.
The finished building was 110 feet long by 58 feet wide with a large basement, public toilets with their own Broadway entrances, several anterooms and a balcony over the main room. The finished building cost $49,044.73, which included the architect’s fee of $500 and $238 for bronze pole lights by the front entrance.
The dedication was held on Dec.14, and the master of ceremony was Lt. Alan Shepard Sr. The speaker was Capt. Maurice Devine, the judge advocate of the state’s American Legion.
He talked to the 500 in attendance of how “futile battles are — how much more fruitful are the pathways of peace.
“Standing before me tonight are many war veterans who can and will verify what I have said. They know what war is — ask them,” he said. “A nation’s honor is precious, the integrity of our homes is priceless, but if there is need for war — we, who are rapidly becoming soldiers of an earlier day — have confidence in the courage and patriotism of the youth of America. However, let us set our faces resolutely away from deliberately inviting a conflict and with the hope that there will be no need for future wars, let us look forward the greater glories of peace.”
After the dedication, a dance was held with the music of Roane’s Pennsylvanians, The 11-man orchestra played peppy dance tunes like the Charleston and the Black Bottom as well as waltzes for those with old-fashioned taste. There were 128 couples in the grand march. There was free tonic for everybody, and a rose was given to each lady who attended the affair.
Rick Holmes is the official town historian of Derry. His office hours at the Municipal Center are Mondays from 8 a.m. to noon and Wednesdays from 4 to 7 p.m. Several of his books on local history are available at Mack’s Apples and Derry’s libraries.