The Exchange Building: A Town Historic Treasure Lost

By: William F. Galvin


HARWICH - The Exchange Building in Harwich Center was the tallest and most elegant building on Cape Cod for nearly 80 years. It would still be today, according to historian Nancy Viall Shoemaker, if it hadn’t been demolished in 1964.

The building, which was located at the corner of Main Street and Pleasant Lake Avenue from 1885 to 1964, was 58 by 100 feet, and rose 104 feet above the village center, Shoemaker told a gathering of history buffs during a Harwich Historical Society last week. It served as the center of commerce, the house of government, the heart of culture and the platform of recreation for the community.

Shoemaker spent her childhood in Harwich and graduated from Harwich High School. Her father, Jack Viall, was a local printer and filmmaker who documented the demolition of the Exchange Building in 1964. Her sister graduated from high school in the building in 1962. 

A historian for the Barnstable and West Barnstable historical societies, Shoemaker said she spent a lot of time talking with the late Virginia Doane, the town librarian for 42 years and the author of “The Birth Of A Building; The Harwich Exchange.”  The pamphlet details the birth of the Exchange Building, its construction and service to the community, concluding with an epilogue leading into the ballot question in the 1964 election that sought its demolition.

There were actually two Exchange Buildings. In 1855 a shorter, smaller building, containing a 43-by-64-foot auditorium, was constructed and considered one of the finest structures built on Cape Cod at the time. It served the community for 21 years before being destroyed by fire.

For several years afterward community discussion focused on the need for a new mercantile center in the village, considered to be the geographic center of Cape Cod. Local resident and banker Chester Snow, one of the originators of the National Bank and the Cape Cod Five Cents Savings Bank, agreed to put $40,000 into the construction of a new Exchange Building, Shoemaker said.

While Harwich’s population was in the 3,400 range, there was much commerce drawn to the village from the seven villages and the surrounding towns. Village shops included a millinery store, stove, hardware and tinware stores, two dry goods stores, three grocery stores, a furniture and carpet warehouse, a clothing department, two apothecaries, an artist, jeweler, and an inn, Shoemaker said.

Construction began in mid-April of 1884 and the new Exchange Building was dedicated on March 31, 1885. The state building inspector said the structure “was built in every particular to conform with the building rules for a city block and unnecessarily strong for a county building,” Doane wrote in her pamphlet. The building cost $43,000.

The first floor had two large stores separated by an eight-foot hall. The selectmen’s office was on one side of the corridor and the town clerk’s office on the other. The second floor held an auditorium with a seating capacity for 800 and a balcony gallery that could hold another 200 people. 

Snow’s goal was to create the finest theater outside of Boston, Shoemaker said. At the grand opening of the theater the Boston Museum Company presented “The Guv’nor” to more than 800 attendees, and the second night another 500 people came to enjoy the comedy “Caste” and the farce “Box and Cox.” A special train was added to bring residents across the Cape to the theater events, according to Doane. 

The third floor was home to an octagonal roller skating rink with a 20-foot gallery, two promenades and a musician’s box. On opening night the rink was filled with 175 skaters and another 150 people observing the spectacle from the promenades. The fourth floor served as an attic and storage location with a ladder leading to the cupola.

The cupola, which was 104 feet from the ground, served multiple purposes over the years, including as a fire tower with the approval of the state fire warden. The cupola also served as an observation tower for enemy planes and U-boats during World War II, Shoemaker said and was a landmark for vessels at sea.

Historic preservationist Duncan Berry said West Harwich resident Caleb Chase, founder of Chase & Sanborn Coffee, purchased the note on the Exchange Building in 1903 and gave the building to the town as a Christmas gift. The town paid $1 for the building.

“And so Harwich achieved the finest and tallest structure in the county,” Doane wrote. “The dedicatory exercises, ball, dramatic offering, and opening of the skating rink were a prelude to seven decades of minstrel shows, repertory company performances, amateur group and Children’s theater.”

The Harwich Junior Theatre got its start in the Exchange Building in 1951.

“But new tastes in architecture, mounting costs of maintenance and repairs, lack of parking for myriad automobiles, and reluctance to climb the so carefully constructed stairs all combined to sound the doom of the huge building,” according to Doane.

The exterior of the structure was in need of work, and there were a lot of rumors going around about the condition of the building. It was said to be a fire hazard, Robert Doane, Virginia Doane’s son, said during the presentation. 

“There was a working sprinkler system in the building,” he added, which was unusual for the time.

In 1965, Robert Doane said, there was a shift in the national preservation philosophy, and had the building survived a few more years, funding would have been available to save the Exchange Building. But timing was not on the side of the Victorian marvel.

Shoemaker said residents had to weigh the cost of maintaining the building against the need to stave off larger development in the Bell’s Neck area of West Harwich by the town purchasing open space. Voters approved the ballot question to demolish the Exchange Building by a 953-452 vote (see related story).

The structure was so strong it took two months and cost $16,800 to tear down. It required the use of the late Linc Thacher’s bulldozer on the second story to take sections of the structure apart. 

Former town highway surveyor Albert Raneo, who graduated from high school in the building in 1952, said he played basketball in the Exchange Building, and what people said about the condition of the building just was not true, he said. 

“It was a beautiful building and I hated to see it go,” Raneo said.       


Harwich Voters Strongly Supported Demolition Of Exchange Building


HARWICH - When voters went to the polls on March 2, 1964, they were being asked to weigh the future against the past, with the preservation of a large section of Bell’s Neck representing the future and maintaining the historic Exchange Building in Harwich Center honoring the town’s past.

Residents chose the future.

Historian Nancy Viall Shoemaker, in a Zoom presentation for the Harwich Historical Society on the former Exchange Building that towered over Harwich Center for nearly 80 years, said residents were being asked to weigh how to spend town funds in 1964.

 One option was to appropriate money for the maintenance of the aging Exchange Building, and the other option was to use the money to purchase land in the Bell’s Neck section of West Harwich, which was being considered by developers for construction of a large number of homes.

While there was no article in the 1964 annual warrant relating to purchase of land in Bell’s Neck, voters were asked to act on the future of the Exchange Building on the annual election ballot.

The ballot question asked residents to approve $18,000 “to demolish the town-owned building located on Main Street and Pleasant Lake Avenue, known as the Exchange Building.” The community supported the demolition 953-452.

The 1964 warrant was a busy one with 112 articles. There were a couple of actions related to the Exchange Building.  Article 104 sought $19,500 for the repairs to the exterior of the Exchange Building, work to be performed on the north, east, south and west sides of the building. The article was indefinitely postponed. 

The final cost to demolish the building was $16,800.

A resolution was also approved at the conclusion of that meeting instructing selectmen to set aside “selected materials and equipment which will become available upon the demolishing of the Exchange Building” for the Harwich Junior Theatre, which was founded at the building in 1951. Selectmen at the time were Milton H. Welt, Ralph U. Brett and Douglas Rockwood.

In a somewhat ironic twist, town meeting attendees also voted to accept provisions of Massachusetts General Laws allowing the establishment of a historical commission for the “preservation, promotion and development of its historical assets.”

As for the town purchase of land in the Bell’s Neck area, the initial purchase of property in what is now the Bell’s Neck Conservation Lands didn’t happen until Aug. 19, 1966. There have been numerous conservation land purchases in the Bell’s Neck area since the initial acquisition, and the town now holds 259 acres there to protect the Herring River, and herring fish run, as well as protect the public reservoir, open space, and a public recreation area, according to the town’s conservation management plan.

-- William F. Galvin