An advisory group is considering how a part of the town’s past could become part of its future.
The Rev. Robert Seymour and Alan Rimer, a former Chapel Hill Museum trustee, asked the Town Council in 2015 to consider turning the building at 100 W. Rosemary St. into a visitors center and museum. The Historic Town Hall Committee is looking now at the 78-year-old building’s potential uses.
The focus is how a museum or a visitors center should look in the 21st century, council member Sally Greene said.
“I think we should just put ourselves through a little bit of a study,” said Greene, who chairs the committee. “What do we imagine here that we are trying to create? Then we can get more deliberate about what we need for this and what we need for that.”
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The committee will present its report in May, but the town won’t be able to act until the Inter-Faith Council’s Community Kitchen leaves the building. It could be a few years before the IFC completes its FoodFirst building, combining its kitchen, food pantry and offices at 110 W. Main St. in Carrboro.
The 11,932-square-foot Old Town Hall served for nearly 50 years as municipal offices, jail, courthouse, and fire and police station. The arches framing the fire engine doors still can be seen on the North Columbia Street side. The IFC took over in 1985, moving the men’s shelter to a new location in 2015.
While the building’s exterior is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the interior has been renovated many times and could be gutted if necessary, architect and committee member Josh Gurlitz said.
A new roof and mechanical system will be needed in the immediate future, Mayor Pam Hemminger said. An evaluation in 2015 found the building is still in good condition, despite some moisture damage. The report recommended more structural support on both floors.
The high cost of maintenance helped close the Chapel Hill Museum at 523 E. Franklin St. in 2010. Many exhibits and artifacts are in storage, Rimer said, and former trustees want to help raise money for a new museum.
“There’s a lot of synergy within the community that looks at the history of the town to make this happen, and the fact that we can couple it with the visitors bureau potentially just drives it even that much more,” he said.
The Visitor’s Bureau board of directors is waiting to hear from the town and county, members said. The 3,000-square-foot office at 501 W. Franklin St. serves about 10,000 visitors each year and answers another 6,000 calls and emails, executive director Laurie Paolicelli said.
Visitor centers nationwide are challenged to stay relevant, Paolicelli said. Some are turning to partners, such as the Wilmington’s visitors center, which shares space with a train museum. Others are adding interactive features, including the National Park Service’s Blue Ridge Parkway Visitor and Destination Center.
Chapel Hill visitors ask “a lot of questions about history of this area, who founded it, and why there are so many protests ... and how Chapel Hill was really responsible for so much social change and how it prides itself on bucking any type of assumption,” Paolicelli said.
There also may be ways to build on the town and UNC’s unique history, said Joel Curran, a committee member and UNC vice chancellor of communications. The UNC Visitor’s Center could move from the Morehead Planetarium to 137 E. Franklin St., making its partnership with the visitor’s bureau stronger, he said.
“If the locations are closer together, it’s even more conceivable that you could see a visitor coming and touring the visitors center at the Old Town Hall, maybe having a museum experience, and then coming over to see the campus, stopping off at our visitors center, continuing with their education of this region, and then launching their campus tour grounded in the history of the region, the full story of the region, and maybe having a deeper appreciation of the campus.”
The committee meets at 8 a.m. March 22 in Meeting Room C at the Chapel Hill Public Library in Chapel Hill. Meetings are open to the public and allow time for comment. Find more information at bit.ly/2k4C1Cq.