The Harwich Exchange -it was a community cornerstone
Browsing photos and postcards of the Harwich Exchange buildings from the late 1800s to the 1960s, one can observe the development of this community on the Lower Cape. In the earlier photos, Main Street in Harwich Center is merely a dirt road, and those visiting this commerce center are doing so by way of horse and carriage or their own two feet. As the years pass, one can see early automobiles parked in front of the Exchange. Then, the viewer makes out telephone poles, a paved road, newer model cars, and finally, a Volkswagen Beetle!
Located at the intersection of Main Street and Route 124 in Harwich Center, the two Exchange buildings oriented the town of Harwich for just over a century, from the time the first structure was built in 1855 to the demolition of the second in 1964. Many locals in their 60s or older can recall with nostalgia visits made to the Exchange Building in their younger days, whether to shop, mail a letter, see a play, or roller skate; however, it’s likely that many who pass by the building’s former footprint, today, have no idea such a place existed. In this article, we take a look back at the history of this unique building, and chat with a handful of Cape Codders who knew it well.
The first Exchange building was constructed in 1855 and served as a community gathering place for more than 20 years. At 43 by 64 feet, the building provided the town a large space to host agricultural fairs, square dances, and municipal meetings—and it housed Harwich Town Hall. On January 19, 1876, the structure was destroyed in a fire, and many of Harwich’s early town records were destroyed. Harwich lost its beloved business, recreation, and community space.
In 1884, Harwich businessman Chester Snow announced plans to finance another Exchange building. Joan Maloney’s Images of America: Harwich reveals that after being orphaned at the age of 9, Snow worked his way into enterprises involving banking, railroads, and the telegraph industry. With enthusiastic support from the community and Snow’s $40,000 investment, planners drew up blueprints for a new Exchange, which would be the tallest—and in the view of many, grandest—building on Cape Cod.
Measuring 58 by 100 feet, this mercantile exchange housed retail space, a post office, and town offices on the ground floor; an 800-seat auditorium with a full performance stage on the second floor; and an octagonal roller-skating rink on the third floor, complete with a bandbox above. The fourth floor was an attic space, with a ladder leading to a cupola tower that was used to watch for fires and to spot enemy planes during World War II. It is said that sailors traveling in Nantucket Sound could view the tower and used it as a guidepost. The massive cellar could store 5,000 barrels of cranberries for seasonal shipment, and in later years the local police used a portion of the space for a shooting range.
Designed by architect Samuel N. Small, a South Harwich native, the Exchange building was a Victorian marvel. The contractors and artisans involved in the construction sourced local materials for the foundation, including brick from West Barnstable and stone from Brewster. Every detail evoked solidity, permanence, and strength. Steam heating, and hot and cold water plumbing, were modern conveniences. No expense was spared: Gold, silver, and bronze details balanced the 25 stained glass windows that were imported from Germany and France. In her book At Home: Harwich Cape Cod, Massachusetts, Marcia Monbleau writes that Snow sold the Exchange to Caleb Chase, a West Harwich resident and the founder of the Chase & Sanborn Coffee Company, who promptly sold the structure to the town for $1.
From its opening in 1885 until the late 1950s, the Exchange was used extensively, and for various purposes. It was the site of municipal meetings and town elections, and Harwich High School held its senior class play and graduation ceremonies in the auditorium. “Everything happened there,” says Gloria Green, a volunteer for the Harwich Historical Society. “Town elections were usually held on a Monday in February and ran one to two days. The church across the street sold sandwiches. Kids from the schools sold coffee and doughnuts to pay for the class trip to Washington, D.C. The ladies of the town made and sold the food while the men voted.”
In 1951, the Harwich Junior Theatre began to use the Exchange building for performances. Betty Bopf, a drama teacher at Wheelock College, brought the stage to life during summer sessions. By the time the theater group arrived, the roller skating rink was no longer in use, and a portion of the space was made into dressing rooms for actors.
Judy Garofalo lived next door, at 708 Main Street. She recalls her mother talking about big bands and jitterbug contests, but for Garofalo, the Exchange was full of adventure, and the joys of community theater. “It was definitely a children’s theater,” she says. “They gave everybody a job.” She shared memories of strike parties held following a play’s third and final night, when the student crew broke down props and cleared backgrounds. “When a play was over, the kids in the play would line up in the hallway and sign autographs,” she says. “It was just fun. It entertained us all summer long.”
Jon Randall of North Harwich remembers seeing Beauty and the Beast with his father when he was 8 years old, circa 1958. He recalls wearing his good school clothes and walking through the Exchange’s heavy, wooden front doors. Tobey’s Store flanked one side of the entrance, Bates Hardware the other. Inside, father and son walked up the huge, creaking stairs that led from the first floor to the level of the main auditorium. “The play looked real. It was believable,” Randall recalls. “The size of the building and how wide it was made the play believable.”
Bob Doane of Harwich’s historic district and historic commission is the son of the late Virginia Doane, who wrote The Birth of a Building: The Harwich Exchange (1965). He also cites the summer theater as his favorite aspect of the Exchange, but he chose lighting, sound, and set building over acting. “When you turned 10, you could officially be on crew,” he recalls. The seats in the balcony were permanent, he adds, but one of the jobs given to kids was to build the set, and to set up and take down all the chairs. Another task Doane was assigned was to go down to the cellar to turn on the exit lights for the auditorium, a task he found “a little scary.” He also remembers the gas chandeliers and sconces on side aisles in the auditorium, which were later replaced by electric versions.
Both Garofalo and Doane remember fun adventures exploring the building itself. “You could go up to the cupola if you didn’t get caught,” Garofalo says. “It was beautiful. You could see forever. It broke my heart when they tore it down.” Doane fondly recalls climbing between the second and third floors by way of a four-foot crawl space. He, too, enjoyed the view from the cupola, accessed by a ladder. “You could see the whole Cape.”
George Meservey, Jr.’s father, George Meservey, owned a gas station diagonally across the street from the Exchange. Meservey, who lives in Chatham, graduated with Harwich High’s Class of 1958—one of the last to perform its senior class play (Mr. Edwards) on the Exchange’s stage. “It was really exciting,” Meservey says. “Everyone in town used to support you. There was nothing like it—the huge drapes, stage, and hall.” Before his high school days, Meservey also spent time in the building as a member of Sea Scouts. “We’d go in the building to go exploring,” he says. “We would go in the side door. It was always open. It was eerie sometimes. There were big ceilings, gold, copper, huge, wide staircases.” It seemed there were stairways everywhere, he adds. “They would squeak.”
Dave Tobey’s father, Arthur Wilkinson Tobey, owned J.F. Tobey & Son, a.k.a. Tobey’s Store in the Exchange building. His great-grandfather, Joshua Fessenden Tobey, had founded the business, and Dave worked there as a boy, beginning around age 11. They sold groceries, and liquor after the repeal of Prohibition. Inside the building, Harwich Town Hall was behind them on the first floor. Tobey remembers selectmen sneaking downstairs from difficult meetings to nibble on a piece of cheese from the butcher’s block, then returning to their meeting. “Business in the 1950s was different from today,” Tobey says with a laugh. “Summer visitors would leave house keys with the store. Customers expected the store to turn on the refrigerator and fill it with groceries. Some visiting customers didn’t pay their bills all summer. Eventually, right around Christmas, the money would flow.”
During the early 1960s, a few changes in town foretold the end for the Exchange. By this time, the large building required regular maintenance and repair work. Also, the Exchange boasted endless stairways—and zero elevators, or room for them to be installed. Also, parking along Main Street was limited. Then, in 1964, construction of a new Harwich High School on nearby Oak Street was completed; once the school opened, town meetings, elections, and graduations were held in the new edifice.
Later that year, the Exchange’s future came to a vote. Asked to decide between maintaining the historic building or purchasing the 259-acre Bell’s Neck Conservation Lands around the Herring River, Harwich residents opted for the latter.
Work to demolish the building began in November 1964, and the cupola was toppled on November 17. Onlookers came from far and wide to bear witness to the occasion, and to buy lumber and other building materials from the work site. “I got lumber to build my first tree house from it,” Bob Doane recalls. “The workers charged people to take stuff. They felt bad charging kids to take stuff, so they gave it to us.” In her book, Virginia Doane summarizes the effort required to bring down the burly building. “Nearly two months and $16,800 were needed,” she wrote, “to undo $40,000 worth of Victorian artistry.”
Today, more than 50 years since its demolition, some reflect on the Exchange with regret the building was not preserved. “Today, I think people would have made every effort to save it,” says Evelyn Tobey. The loss of the building “was disappointing to me,” adds Meservey. “I go through there today, and I miss it. I had a lot of good memories there.”
Passing through Harwich Center, there is little hint of a vast, four-story community center that once brimmed with commerce and activity, theater and ceremony. Visitors can, however, observe a quiet remembrance of the Exchange in a small park next to Snow’s Home & Garden where the building once stood. There is no label or plaque, but a large stone stands on a pedestal. Sculpted into the ridgeline is a replica of the building, in relief, its edges and angles—even its name—softened by the hands of time.
Lisa Goodrich is a freelance writer, technical editor, and poet who lives in Brewster.