The building most of us know as New Bedford City Hall downtown at 133 William Street wasn't always City Hall. City Hall used to be what we now know as the main branch of the New Bedford Free Public Library, and the New Bedford Free Public Library at 613 Pleasant Street was City Hall.

It's true.

The New Bedford Free Public Library, one of the first public libraries in the nation, was established in 1852 – at the current City Hall building.

New Bedford City Hall Was Originally The Public Library
Google Maps

An act of the Massachusetts Legislature on May 24, 1851 gave authority to cities and towns to establish libraries where residents could borrow books and periodicals. The New Bedford City Council approved an ordinance on August 16, 1852 and the library opened on March 3, 1857.

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According to the official City of New Bedford website, New Bedford's first public library – City Hall – contained "books, periodicals, and other materials purchased from the New Bedford Social Library (founded in 1807), which had assimilated the collections of the Encyclopedia Society, New Bedford Library Society, New Bedford Athenaeum and Lyceum."

The present-day library building was built as a city hall in the 1830s.

New Bedford City Hall Was Originally The Public Library
Tim Weisberg/Townsquare Media

The current City Hall – then the library – was heavily damaged by fire in 1906. The building was repaired and expanded, and when it reopened in 1912 it became City Hall, and the New Bedford Free Public Library moved across William Street to its current location.

The present-day City Hall has one of the oldest operating elevators in the nation. An upgrade to the elevator was planned late last year when the city sought bids for the project.


In a 2021 article about the centennial celebration of the existing City Hall, the Standard-Times reported New Bedford's longest-serving mayor, Charles Ashley, was less than enthusiastic about moving his office into the new City Hall.

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