Historic Districts in the Mascoma Valley?

Submitted 2 years ago
Created by
Andrew Cushing

Some Suggestions for More

There are several potential National Historic Districts in the Mascoma Valley. Already, the area is home to four – perhaps the best well known being Canaan Street (listed 1973) and Enfield Shaker Village (1979). Downtown Enfield joined the register in 2010 as one of the largest in the state, and Dorchester’s village was listed back in 1985.

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Historic districts are important because the buildings and structures that comprise them narrate important events or broad patterns in our national history. Canaan Street is more than just a stretch of old homes. Its intact houses, barns, churches, and civic buildings tell us how town planning was construed at the turn of the nineteenth century. The shade trees, road width, house set-backs, and lot sizes create a neighborhood that is aesthetically pleasing and safe for pedestrians and vehicular traffic. Later, Canaan Street became a mecca for the wealthy who summered near the shores of Canaan Street Lake.

Canaan Street. Photo courtesy of Canaan Historical Society (Donna Dunkerton)

The great thing about historic districts, though, is that the field of preservation has moved beyond researching and fetishizing the “obvious” architectural gems. There is a concerted effort to diversify the National Register of Historic Places – to help tell the stories of women, the working class, minorities, and other underrepresented groups.

Consider Enfield Village. Despite many improvements in the past decade, the downtown area is not immediately recognized as pretty. It’s not Canaan Street. And yet its housing stock, commercial blocks, and extant industrial properties tell an interesting story of industrialization. The downtown has mill housing, mill owners’ houses, a Catholic Church (most Catholics in New Hampshire can trace their roots to Quebec when ancestors migrated south to work in the mills), and a railroad depot and freight shed. Architectural styles suggest Shaker influence, and indeed the Shakers invested heavily in this part of town. 

Enfield Village's mills derived their power from the Mascoma River.

Historic Districts have a few misconceptions. First, there’s the fear of regulation. Inclusion on the National Register is honorary. That means that no regulation results from joining the Register. None. If you want to paint your house chartreuse or demolish it, you can (but please don't). Ordinances can only come at the local level, when voted in. For instance, Canaan Street is governed by a commission that approves renovations, new construction, paint colors, etc.

Another misconception is that designation increases property values, and pushes out people with lesser means. There are a lot of variables involved when it comes to valuating old buildings, but most economic studies show that, if anything, designation stabilizes property values. For all things at the intersection of preservation and economics, check out the reports by Place Economics, a consulting firm in Washington, DC.

So why aren’t there more Historic Districts? For starters, misconceptions stop exploration of such designation before discussion could even commence. Also, listing a district to the National Register takes a lot of time, and increasingly, money. In the early days, following the passage of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, there was an influx of historic buildings and districts that became designated. These early listings were the homes of presidents and Revolutionary War heroes, beautiful neighborhoods and national landmarks. Over time, funding dried up and requirements increased. Today, listing a large district can cost north of $15,000.  

To reiterate, though, Historic Districts have merit. They help us understand and appreciate our neighborhoods on a holistic level. Steady demolition of barns or widespread replacement of original windows eats away at that historical narrative, whether it’s the story of an area’s agricultural heritage or a group of lakeside houses built by Civil War veterans. When we appreciate our history and protect our community’s identifying features, we pass on important lessons to forthcoming generations.

There's also new research coming out of the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Green Lab. Downtowns with diverse, quirky, affordable, and historic buildings are laboratories for the "creative class," or entrepreneurs. In many ways, this is what the Main Street Program is all about. (Enfield Village Association bases many of its ideas from this national model.) Franklin and Claremont have benefited from such designation - it makes much of their downtowns eligible for grant dollars and tax credits. These downtowns are the ones to watch in New Hampshire.

If you ask me, there are four more contending districts for the National Register in the Mascoma Valley.  All tell interesting stories and would benefit from being listed. Some buildings within these districts are in danger of being lost forever if inaction prevails.

1. Canaan Village

A devastating fire in 1923 leveled downtown Canaan, a village that had developed after the Northern Railroad arrived in 1848. (The fire is a fascinating story for another day.) The new downtown was a planned affair that resulted in new street layouts and commercial buildings that represented 1920s attitudes about city planning. Many of the new buildings – large, blocky, white – boasted Colonial Revival architectural details that may have been intended to pay homage to nearby Canaan Street. 

Aftermath of the Canaan Fire, 1923. Photo courtesy of Canaan Historical Society (Donna Dunkerton)

The rebuilt downtown Canaan, 1934. Smith and Taplin Block in the foreground, post office in background. Photo courtesy of Canaan Historical Society (Donna Dunkerton)

The Great Depression slowed construction, with many lots remaining undeveloped until the 1970s and ‘80s. Spirit waned. Recent improvements, courtesy of the Friends of Canaan Village have made downtown Canaan more attractive (sidewalks, crosswalks, lighting, plantings), but the town has struggled to attract further investment.

By listing the downtown to the National Register of Historic Places, developers will have an economic incentive to restore key anchors in the downtown (historic tax credits are only available for income-producing buildings listed to the National Register - see Franklin and Claremont above). There are fantastic opportunities in Canaan, including the proximity of the Northern Rail Trail, Cardigan Mountain School, and whatever redevelopment comes out of the former fairgrounds.

An appreciation of the downtown’s unique history can catalyze such a rebirth.

One of the last of its kind, the freight shed is ideal for a creative and sensitive reuse.

2. East Grafton

Once known as “Bungtown,” this village off of Route 4 shows how the industrial revolution transformed a small crossroads on the Grafton Turnpike into a bustling mill village. By 1890, one could find cider, woolens, bobbins, coffins, axes, harnesses, nails, boards, and shingles made here. Today, much of the village remains intact, telling a narrative of how rural mills powered local economies.

East Grafton. Photo courtesy of Grafton Historical Society

Some of the standout buildings in this village include the former E.F. Folsom store (built 1897, closed c.1930), the East Grafton Union Church (built 1785, moved 1840, renovated 1896), the carding mill (built c.1826), and several mill owners' homes that are fancy for a place like Grafton.

The former E.F. Folsom Store.

The Grafton Historical Society owns or manages three buildings in the village, and restoration efforts are noticeable at the East Grafton Union Church and carding mill. (The parsonage will be restored at a later date.) The town hall, located at the former District #5 School, is the town’s “living room” and is actively used and maintained. East Grafton is a gem, which is why I bought a house here to restore.

East Grafton Union Church and its parsonage.

Carding mill, East Grafton.

3. Enfield Center

During the mid- to late-1800s, Enfield Center was the civic hub of the town. Sprawled along the former 4th New Hampshire Turnpike (today’s Route 4A), this potential historic district has an assemblage of really interesting buildings that retain a lot of integrity (preservation terminology for buildings that haven’t been heavily altered).

Enfield Center Town House.

Architectural gems include the Enfield Center Town House, Enfield Center Union Church (individually listed to the National Register), Enfield Center School (home of the historical society, and one of the best-preserved examples of a school of its kind in the state), and an impressive granite house, currently for sale. In addition, the village includes many examples of fantastic vernacular designs, and some ornate appliques to older capes.

Enfield has a good track record of caring for its assets, thanks to its historical society, heritage commission, and town leaders. Enfield Center is deserving of some closer looks.

4. Grafton Center

Grafton Center. Courtesy of Bob Cusick

Grafton Center was proposed to be a historic district back at town meeting in 1963. The article proposed “the establishment of a historic district and the preservation of buildings of historic and architectural value.” The article was defeated. Long the focal point of town, the Grafton Center common, lined with vernacular houses dating between c.1800 and the 1910s, is anchored by the Grafton Center Meetinghouse, built in 1797. The meetinghouse, of course, is currently in poor shape after a fire damaged it in January of this year.

Grafton’s common was actually a construct of the 1850s. Evidence suggests that the meetinghouse was moved from (what is today) the common in 1856 when the building was renovated. This creation of the classic New England village was likely a nostalgic reaction to the construction of the Northern Railroad’s depot, which came to serve the nearby mines and quarries. Even though their neighbors and the economy were changing, the residents could at least have a physical manifestation of a time when things were more idyllic.

Grafton Center Meetinghouse. Photo courtesy of Grafton Historical Society.

A National Historic District in Grafton Center could bring attention to the fate of the damaged meetinghouse, last operated as the Peaceful Assembly Church. It is one of only forty-two meetinghouses standing in New Hampshire – and its timber frame construction and 1856 renovation are likely to reveal important clues about building techniques in western New Hampshire, an understudied region according to former state architectural historian, Jim Garvin.

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