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Arts & Culture
Thu July 17, 2014
Worth Preserving? 'Ugly' Concord Building At Center Of Debate Over Mid-Century Design
Located at 32-34 South Main Street, the former office of New Hampshire Employment Security has been called “the ugliest building in Concord.”
It is empty and blighted. It also melds two distinctly different styles; a 1927 home made of brick juts from the back of a 1958, Mad Men-era office building framed with turquoise panels of porcelain-enameled steel.
Those turquoise panels, in particular, look dated to many people. Mid-20th century architecture is not in vogue in New Hampshire, although it is in many cities outside of New England.
The City of Concord just bought the Employment Security building from the state, with an eye on selling it to a developer who will likely demolish it. But if the building is replaced with a red brick, colonial-style storefront, some argue a piece of history will be lost.
“In another 20 years, we may regret tearing these buildings down,” says Nadine Peterson of New Hampshire’s Division of Historical Resources.
That’s because the Employment Security building, and others from the mid-1900s, are historic, says Peterson, and may come back into fashion in a few more decades.
“It spoke to a generation”
When the Employment Security building opened its doors in 1958, it projected the self-confidence of an ascending world power—modern, authoritative, and a little imposing.
“The aluminum speaks to the period of post World War II,” says Lisa Mausolf, an architectural historian who wrote a state-commissioned study about the building.
Aluminum “was a new material in vogue,” says Mausolf. Those now-drab porcelain panels were the essence of modern design.
The designers were Koeler and Isaak, one of the state’s leading architectural firms at the time, and the building was featured on the cover of New Hampshire Architect in 1960.
“Within the past two years,” the designers told the magazine, “Concord has experienced a rejuvenation in architecture, [sic] we hope this building will assist in furthering this progressive climate.”
“It spoke to a generation,” says Mausolf.
The porcelain and aluminum are still speaking, but now seem to whisper, “Tear me down.” Like many buildings of that era, Mausolf says, those modern exterior materials like aluminum and porcelain were embraced for their sleekness, not strength.
Today, the Employment Security building, like others from that era, looks a little shabby. Energy efficiency was not a buzz phrase in the 1950s, so keeping the building alive through further New Hampshire winters will cost a small fortune.
Yet Mausolf’s 2011 report on the Employment Security building “helped the state realize it had something important and historic on its hands,” says Peterson.
Mausolf’s research also found the building was eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. Once a building hits 50 years of age, says Mausolf, it passes a benchmark for historic significance.
“People can’t imagine why something would be significant if it is that recent,” says Mausolf.
Masuolf’s report piqued the state’s curiosity, and she was commissioned to write a wider study on mid-20th century architecture in New Hampshire. (You can read it here.)
The resulting 147-page study is overflowing with photos of still-standing, mid-1900s buildings around the state. On page three, Mausolf gets to the heart of New Hampshire’s ambivalence toward mid-20th century architecture.
“[The Employment Security building] draws commentary ranging from praise…to derision, calling it one of the ugliest buildings in Concord.”
Melding old and new
It may be that people react so strongly to buildings of this era because they are from a time many of us can actually remember.
“People’s taste change,” says Steve Duprey, President of Foxfire Property Management in Concord. “It’s not like a wardrobe. Once you pick an architectural style, that’s it.”
Duprey does not go so far as to call the Employment Security building beautiful - “There must have been a discount on turquoise,” he says - but does admit it would be a mistake to rid the landscape of all the buildings of a particular era.
Duprey made an effort to salvage the Employment Security building when the state tried selling it last year. He says it has strong steel bones, and he hoped to strip away the turquoise porcelain and transform it into a retail space.
“We would have paid good homage to its original design,” says Duprey.
He points to the NH Institute of Art in Manchester, finished in 2009, as an example of architecture that seamlessly melds old and new. A Manchester architectural firm lifted an 1841 brick colonial (Manchester’s first high school, in fact) off its foundation, moved it forward on the lot, and then attached a modern, efficient building to the back.
Related: watch a time lapse video of the NHIA building under construction.
Duprey’s company was one of two developers that bid on 32 South Main, but ultimately the plans all fell through.
Foxfire’s potential retail tenant, Company C, pulled out before the city responded to the developer’s proposal. Duprey says he had warned the city his tenant was on a fixed timelines and the second developer, who had proposed to raze the building, pulled out too.
In June the city council voted to buy the building from the state for $1.9 million, setting aside an additional $90,000 to weatherize it for five years.
The city now hopes another developer will come along to refurbish or rebuild on the site. But Duprey says he is skeptical another developer will step forward anytime soon. He says the building’s layout is best for one user, and it will be tough to find a retailer or business that needs so much space on multiple floors. Company C fit that bill, says Duprey.
A Future Treasure?
If buildings fade in and out of fashion like narrow ties and Converse sneakers, will Granite Staters mourn the loss of the Employment Security building in another 30 years?
Steve Duprey points to the dilapidated red brick buildings being transformed into stores and apartments all over New England.
“I remember a time when those old brick buildings were considered really slummy,” he says.
One block east of the Employment Security building, you will find a shopping center with a Market Basket, a Burlington Coat Factory, and a now-bankrupt Blockbuster Video. As innovative design goes, the shopping center is not much to look at.
But what used to stand there was a building that, if still present today, would certainly be considered historic.
The Boston and Maine Train Station was a massive Victorian structure that once filled the lot. The station was built in the exact kind of design that New England cities like Concord now try to emulate in new construction: boxy colonial structures with peaked roofs, red brick buildings with white trim.
The Division of Historical Resources’ Nadine Peterson says tearing that train station down was a turning point for New Hampshire. Once it was gone, many began to look around, worried about what might be torn down next.
"Many consider that the beginning of the modern age of preserving historic buildings,” says Peterson.
And when was the B&M Station torn down? The late 1950s, right when the Employment Security building was being constructed a block away.
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