The Friends of Centennial Hall are in the midst of a fund-raising campaign to make their match for an LCHIP grant of $200,000. LCHIP stands for Land and Community Heritage Investment Program. It seems a good time to describe the building and its role over the years in North Hampton for those who are not familiar with it.
First, the name. It was named “centennial” because it was built in 1876, the centennial of the Declaration of Independence and establishment of the United States of America. Hall is easy. The second floor of the building is a large hall with a stage where entertainments were common from its opening until the late 1940s. Among them were dances, hence the matching fund campaign “Open the Ballroom”. It also served as an assembly hall for the Town’s Center School which occupied the first floor of the building.
The third floor might be called a club space. Low ceilinged with a long counter, perhaps bar, and a dumbwaiter for moving food, glassware, and utensils from floor to floor, the space with panoramic views of North Hampton (Centennial Hall is probably the tallest building in town), was the meeting space for the many civic and social organizations of that era.
While the building is now known as Centennial Hall, at one time it was called Centennial Hall and Center School. From its opening in 1876 until 1949 it was the chief school building in North Hampton for Grades 1 through 8.
Another smaller school, Little River or East School, across from the Little River Cemetery on Atlantic Avenue, closed in 1943 as a cost-saving measure during World War II.
In 1876 Center School replaced two schools, the Brick School that had been located on land next to the new Centennial Hall, and North School located on the left corner of Cherry and Post Roads. Some people opposed the combination of the two school districts and there were school district and town votes going back and forth. Finally, John W. F. Hobbs offered to pay for the new school himself as long as it included a social hall. Even with Mr. Hobbs’ offer, opposition to the school continued until some “raiders” in the dead of night, set fire to the existing buildings. And we think politics are contentious now.
By the time of its dedication on April 27, 1876, the “pleasant new school building” was a cause for celebration and perhaps the community came together for speeches by various dignitaries, a “five piece Marine Corps band” for a dance, and a “nice supper” costing “50 cents". The words in quotes were what Samuel A. Dow wrote in his diary.
One might think the Town Common would have been the School’s playground but the flat field on the north side of the school, at one time known as the French Field, some of which is Grandview Terrace and the UCC Church’s parking lot, was the School’s playing field. An added benefit to students was Centennial Hall’s nearby location to a store just beyond the intersection of Post and Exeter Roads where they could buy ice cream and candy. In good weather, some would coast down the hill on their bicycles. Clearly traffic was not of concern back then.
As the population of North Hampton began to increase in the 1930s and, with a rush in the 1940s, something needed to be done. The four classrooms with two grades in each no longer worked. Some wanted to expand the building while others thought a new building the best solution. The center of town, of course, had shifted farther east. The 1943 fire that destroyed the Wentworth Farm on Atlantic Avenue led to purchase of the land by the Town and construction of a new school, the current and much expanded North Hampton School in 1949.
Centennial Hall fell upon hard times. The Town abandoned the building and the State Supreme Court ruled in 1952 that it reverted to the North Hampton Congregational Society. In the mid 1950s the church sold the building and in subsequent years several businesses occupied the structure. It housed a Montessori School for more than decade from 1985. In 1997 the building was listed for sale and demolition was considered. Center School alumna Louise (Booker) Goss, then 89, concerned for the future of the Hall and wishing to see it restored, inspired a group of alumni and townspeople to form the non-profit Friends of Centennial Hall, and purchase the building. For more information see the Friends of Centennial Hall website https://www.centennialhall.org
An architectural description and more fulsome history of the building appears in the National Register of Historic Places application on the Heritage Commission’s webpage of the Town website.
And for images and information about all the schools over the years, visit the Historical Society’s exhibit in the Town Clerk/Tax Collector building (stone building) in the room on the right side.