—Est. 1725 —
Downtown Concord has one of the best assemblages of 19th and early 20th century commercial, civic and institutional buildings in New England. Despite near uniformity in height and material, each building is individually and distinctively detailed. Beyond delighting us visually, their architectural features convey the history of downtown, as well as reflect wider trends and events.
There is a lot to see when the eye wanders to the upper levels of Concord's commercial blocks: decorative masonry, ornate brackets, window caps and sills made of granite and sandstone, and arched openings of all types.
Prominently displayed building names, typically found near the cornice, can convey an earlier use. "E&P Hotel Company" references the Eagle & Phenix Hotel, which moved into an existing building ca. 1900 to occupy the upper floors and serve as an annex to the adjacent Phenix Hotel. With twenty-five passenger trains arriving daily and all the activity induced by a state capital, the demand for hotel rooms was high; in 1900 three sizeable hotels stood within a few blocks of each other.
Morrill Brothers used the cornice of its building as a blatant advertisement for its goods. The name of the Optima Building, built ca. 1900-01, had multiple meanings. "Optima" was the name of the private brand of flour sold within.
The word simultaneously proclaimed the quality of the novel "lounging apartment" upstairs where patrons could rest from shopping and wait for a streetcar.
Please Come In
The ground floor of commercial buildings purposely looked different from the upper levels, as merchants wanted to entice pedestrians inside ground floor retail establishments.
Corner locations were highly desirable, and buildings placed there often had a rounded corner, even a tower to draw further attention to it. Granite or iron posts separated the storefronts, and the display windows were as large as technologically possible. A horizontal band intended for a sign spanned the top of storefronts. Entrances were typically recessed to allow yet more window display space, and granite steps led up to the doorway.
One of the purposes of the 2015-16 streetscape project was to make buildings fully accessible, achieved in a number of locations with subtle ramps at entrances previously accessed by steps.
"Make it Worthy of Main Street"
Since 1926 this distinctive, granite building has anchored the corner of North Main and Capitol streets. It was constructed for the New Hampshire Savings Bank, founded in 1830 and one of the oldest banks in the state. Its previous headquarters, the Sheraton Building across the street at 118 North Main, lacked space for growth as well as sufficient
light and ventilation. The bank seized upon this prominent corner location overlooking the State House and instructed its Boston architect to "design a building which, while unpretentious, would not suffer from comparison with the best the city already has."
The five-story building is the only one along Main Street clad with local granite. (The owner of the quarry was a bank trustee.) The store not only lends an aura of dignity befitting a bank building, but effectively bridges the transition between the governmental and institutional buildings to the north and west and the city's commercial district to the east and south. Lions on either side of the cartouche over the entrance and two-story, archeo windows on the north side to light the banking hall further contributed to the air of elegance and classical dignity the bank sought.
Phenix Hall replaced an earlier building of the same name in 1894-95. The original Phenix Hall, constructed in 1855 and destroyed by fire, hosted Abraham Lincoln in 1860, two months before he received the Republican party's nomination for president. There was no question of rebuilding after the fire. Concord was in a period of rapid growth and downtown was thriving. For many years, the new building was called "New Phenix Hall" to distinguish it from its predecessor.
Local architects Dow and Randlett designed the new
building in the architectural idiom of the day. The façade is clad with pressed brick and enhanced by a band of angled bricks and decorative terracotta blocks, found on either side of top-story windows, as well as in panels below fourth-story windows. Granite posts and lintels delineate the storefronts, while limestone is used for lintels and sills on upper stories. The arched transom windows contain muntins placed in an unusual geometric pattern.
Like several other business blocks in downtown Concord, the upper portion of Phenix Hall was reserved for an open hall with stage. Once described as one of the state's finest auditoriums, it had birch chairs on the floor and cherry seats in the balcony (still in place) for a capacity of 976. Blue and cream frescoes decorated the ceiling. The space was used for political speeches, lectures, agricultural fairs, boxing and wrestling matches, dances and theatrical productions. Today, the auditorium is one of the few to survive in Concord.
A Matter of Taste
If you had looked to your right across the street in 1966, you would have seen a large, white, aluminum panel covering the windows of Concord's oldest brick building, once home to the city's first bank. Next door at Kosen's, you would have seen an aluminum storefront and overhead canopy installed a few years earlier. On the far left, you might have admired the modern
quarters of Concord Savings Bank.
By the mid-20th century, Concord's Main Street merchants were facing competition from the area's first shopping center built just a block away on Storrs Street, as well as from new trends brought about by the automobile.
The sleek, one-story form of the shopping center was in sharp contrast to Main Street's buildings, which now looked particularly old-fashioned and shabby.
In response to a 1960s news article referring to Concord's Main Street buildings as "old brick shells," property owners strove to update them.
Some buildings were modernized with metal storefronts, Carrara glass or large panels that covered up the outmoded architectural details. Others lost their corner towers. A few were simply cut down to a single story. Yet other buildings were abandoned altogether for a site that could provide drive-up service and expanded parking.
Many of these improvements were reversed in the late 20th century as citizens came to appreciate the older architecture. The white aluminum panel in the photograph was up for barely ten years, before the window openings were returned to their 1860s appearance. Rosen's storefront was peeled off, and the original design brought back. Mid-Century Modern buildings, such as the Concord Savings Bank, lost their allure in just a few decades, and many received facelifts. Architectural appreciation is cyclical. Just as Victorian-era architecture fell out of favor in the first half of the 20th-century, only to be better regarded in later years, Mid-Century Modern architecture is now enjoying a revival.
Downtown Concord is listed on the National Register of Historic Places for historic and architectural significance.
[Photos correspond to map locations]