Blending the past of Concord’s Main Street with its future
In the most recent draft of plans redesigning Main Street presented to the Concord City Council the clock tower is moved from in front of Eagle Square south to a spot in front of The Works and Phenix Avenue is converted to a pocket park.
When construction begins this year on Concord’s downtown streetscape, it won’t be Main Street’s first makeover in its 287 years. But the street’s history will play a role in its future.
When the project is complete in 2015, Main Street is expected have two lanes with a crossable center median, parallel parking along one side of the street, widened sidewalks, trees and public art. The city has a design team of engineers, architects and consultants to complete the project, for which Concord received a $4.71 million federal grant last year.
Local historic preservation consultant Liz Hengen is a member of that team. She began her work by completing a report about Main Street’s history using old maps, photographs, planning records and written histories.
Last week, Hengen spoke with the Monitor about the Main Street project.
What is your role with the design team?
My role is to help provide some historic context and guide design decisions so that we both acknowledge the historic character that downtown already is but also inform future decisions. And the first thing I did . . . is I did a fairly comprehensive study of how Main Street has evolved, ever since it was first laid out in 1726.
What did it look like in 1726?
It looked like a piece of paper, and there is a plan that shows it laid out and it’s all illustrated in this report. One thing that’s kind of interesting is that Main Street from the outset went from its current northern terminus up at Horseshoe Pond all the way south to today’s West Street, and that’s where it stopped.
When did Main Street begin to look like what we see today?
Certainly when Concord was designated as the state capital in 1808, and that I see as a real turning point. And coincidentally, in that same decade there were two turnpikes that were constructed.
When did Main Street begin to have the four-lane, angled parking layout?
You don’t start seeing any sort of distinctive lanes until the road is paved. . . . You see angled parking even in the horse era. And you see it with automobiles in the 1920s.
How will the design team use this history to make the new streetscape?
In 1953, Main Street underwent a massive reconstruction and there are real parallels to that effort to what we’re looking at today. It reconstructed Main Street all the way from Water Street on the south, all the way up to Bouton Street. And it was the availability of federal funds that in part drove this, as well as a perceived need to revamp Main Street. South Main Street was widened to allow for additional angled parking spots. Many of the sidewalks were rebuilt. . . . All of the street lights that you see today downtown that are these concrete posts with metal arms, these were all put in. . . . And that’s when the double curb was put in there, too, and it’s all to address grading issues. So here we are essentially two generations later, looking at many of the same issues.
So, this is sort of a long way of saying that when you were doing a reconstruction project in a downtown that’s been in existence for as long as Concord and been through so many iterations, it’s important to understand what those iterations were and to use that information to inform design decisions.
What decisions will the history inform?
Downtown has had concrete sidewalks since the 19th century . . . and that played
a major role in deciding to continue with concrete sidewalks. Brick and granite have been construction materials for 105 years, and we wanted to continue with those. Some might say that introducing this central median down Main Street, which is going to be delineated most likely in some kind of new material, probably stone pavers . . . you’re introducing a whole new element in downtown, a visual element. . . . You’ll see that in the 1880s, a street railway was put in place . . . in the same location and almost the same proportions.
How do you balance a new street with its history?
I think it’s important to realize that Main Street has never been static and even today, maybe the late 19th century is most prevalent because of the building stock and the way it edges Main Street, but that’s only a portion of Main Street. . . . So the challenge is to sort of: Define and articulate what are the important elements now that we want to see remain, and how can we inject new life, new ideas into that streetscape?
What are those important elements?
I think that downtown has a very stately feel to it and one of the reasons that we are advocating for what I would call historical streetlights, I think that can reinforce that and give it a very stately, elegant look.
And streetlights are something that will be with us for a long time. Things like benches and trash receptacles and those . . . accessory street items don’t have that same sort of life span. . . . They’re going to wear out. That’s where you can really have some fun and be really creative.
Some people have said the design doesn’t look historical enough. How do you respond to that?
Again, I think it goes back to what is Main Street? It’s never been frozen in one particular period.
What about public art?
If you look at pictures of Main Street from the 1950s you’re just sort of barraged with signs. Signs on buildings, signs covering up windows . . . over-scaled signs, flashing signs. You could call it advertising iconography or you could call it art.
There’s always been sort of visual elements that have been planted along the street for varying purposes. . . . It’s all a matter of having things be proportional and they need to have some meaning and relate in some way to downtown Concord. I wouldn’t propose a Japanese pagoda, but you can be very abstract.
So is it a balancing act to blend the old and the new?
It is a balancing act. But it’s as much acknowledging what we have, respecting it and adding a new flair that doesn’t adversely impact it or impede it. But I haven’t heard anyone say they don’t want downtown to be an exciting, fun place to come to. And you can achieve that without ruining its historic character.