SHIRLEY -- The War Memorial Building has a big, beautiful new sign atop its front facade, the latest in a series of changes over the years.
The War Memorial Building has been an icon on Church Street since it was erected in 1935 as part of the Federal Government's WPA (Works Progress Administration) program, created to boost the U.S. economy and create jobs during the Great Depression, which reached its height that year.
The War Memorial Building stands on the site of a former church that Shirley's American Legion post purchased in 1925 and used as its headquarters until that building burned down 10 years later, in June 1935.
Today, the War Memorial Building is more than twice the size of the original brick structure built on that site, the North-side cornerstone of which is engraved with the year it was completed: 1936.
Other WPA-funded town projects during that period included conversion of an old brick school building on Lancaster Road into a municipal building, replacing the historic Center Town Hall as the nexus of town government. It served the purpose until the new Town Offices went up off Front Street.
Today, the "new town hall" anchors a municipal complex that includes the police station and library. Clustered around a grassy common area, the complex is within walking distance of the Ayer Shirley Regional Middle School, a relatively recent addition to Shirley's street scape with a modern auditorium that the town uses as its Town Meeting venue.
Back in 1935, Shirley had no such option. At that time, the "new" municipal building housed town offices and provided space for board meetings but could not accommodate large gatherings.
The town needed a function hall. With WPA-funding available, town officials eyed the Legion's then-vacant land on Church Street as a building site. But there was a catch. WPA rules required matching funds. So the town and the Legion cut a deal: The Legion ceded its land to the town, plus insurance money from the fire. In return, the Legion got a permanent home in the new, town-owned building.
The War Memorial Building Trustees, an elected board, was part of the set-up Town Meeting agreed to, along with certain rights, responsibilities and stipulations on each side that would later create tensions between selectmen and the trustees. But all of that is in the past now and was still in the future when the War Memorial Building was completed in 1936.
The War Memorial Building was expanded in 1941. With WWII in progress, the U.S. government contracted with the town of Shirley to make it a USO, with an addition. A roomy function hall upstairs included a raised stage, where USO shows and big band-style dances were held during the war years. The basement, which now houses the Legion's office, kitchen and bar, was a drop-in social center for soldiers stationed at nearby Fort Devens, who came there to read, write letters home and relax.
The War Memorial Building's storied history was most colorful during WWII. Vintage photos show uniformed young men dancing with young women in ball gowns, known then as "USO girls," while a band played on stage. Many of those young men would soon be sent overseas. Some of them did not come home.
Recognizing and remembering their sacrifice is what the War Memorial Building is ll about. The town's fallen WWII heroes are among those the War Memorial Building honors today, along with later generations of military men and women from Shirley who have died in the nation's wars and conflicts since. That is the prevailing purpose the Trustees operate on, according to chairman Norman Albert, a WWII Marine veteran and one of the War Memorial Building's staunchest supporters. He may be the most vocal, Albert admits, but other
trustees, past and present, have also worked hard for the cause, he said. The current roster: Harold Smith, Bryan Dumont, Scott Bulger and Alan Flagg.
They've had their work cut out for them. It is an old building, big, drafty, many-windowed and in need of updates, improvements and other TLC as well as routine upkeep. The town has done its share to keep it viable, Albert said, in part with Community Development Block Grants. Step by step, the trustees have overseen an array of energy-efficient upgrades, including insulation and a new furnace.
Legion members and local volunteers have pitched in with painting, exterior fixes and other tasks to whittle down the to-do list and the trustees see fundraising as part of the big picture, Albert said.
An ongoing kitchen makeover, now in phase I, the "cosmetic stage" was undertaken with Town-Meeting-approved funding and will eventually create an "industrial kitchen" where the old, 1940's version is now, but somewhat bigger and a lot better, Albert said.
Another project the trustees can be proud of was key to the building's purpose and was done entirely with a donation from a local credit union, which not only provided funding for a line-up of tall, glass-fronted wooden plaques with the names of Shirley's fallen war heroes printed in gold letters. but also sent a team member to install the plaques on a wall in the WMB lobby,
A total of 28 area businesses and individuals donated funds for the latest addition to the building's exterior, a handsome sign installed high on the front facade. Thanks to a fundraising effort with a targeted goal of $2,800 that began in August, 2017, the new sign went up this year.
Made of aluminum and steel by Wass Signs in Fitchburg, the sign spells out "War Memorial Building" in gold letters on a bright blue background. The company installed the sign in early February.
So what's next? Finishing the kitchen, Albert said. There's still money in the account but more will be needed to complete the job, about $20,000, he said. The next fundraising campaign will launch soon.