Protesters decry cafe steps

Last modified: 1/24/2011 12:00:00 AM
Disabilities rights advocates lifted a college student and her wheelchair into The Works Bakery Cafe yesterday during a protest of the two steps separating the popular Main Street hangout from the sidewalk.

Members of ABLE NH, an organization that advocates for accessibility, agreed at a meeting beforehand that the building's owner should have put in a ramp when he did work on the building this year.

"The bottom line is that everybody should be able to access a building no matter what," said group president Sarah Aiken.

About 30 people walked along an icy sidewalk from the Holiday Inn past the State House to chant and listen to brief speeches outside Phenix Hall, the historic building that houses the cafe and the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen. The original Phenix Hall was built in 1855 but was destroyed by fire. The current structure opened in 1895.

Mark Ciborowski, whose family owns Phenix Hall, said he would like to make the building accessible and had already planned to make accessible the basement and second and third floors. But he said the 14 inches that separate the building's ground floor from street level are prohibitive. The incline would require a 14-foot ramp that would take 40 percent of the seating space in the cafe, threatening the business, he said.

"Accessibility is very important to me, and I gave it a very close look prior to any of this coming to the surface," Ciborowski said.

On the exterior wall of the Works, he has installed a button that will call an employee outside to serve a customer.

The Disabilities Rights Center, a Concord-based advocacy organization, has argued the recent restoration work, which included removing a 1960s-era metal facade and replacing the granite steps, triggers a part of the Americans with Disabilities Act that would require Ciborowski to install a ramp or other way for people with disabilities to access the building.

Historic buildings have leeway in meeting the accessibility standards of buildings open to the public. But the law says any alteration that affects the usability of a historic building has to ensure the affected portion is as accessible as possible. Ciborowski says the work on Phenix Hall is cosmetic and does not compel him to install a ramp.

Plans for the renovation passed the city approval process, said Jack Crisp, Ciborowski's attorney. He said advocates for accessibility could have had a greater impact if they got involved earlier.

Don Brueggemann, the manager of the Works, said the conversation about his cafe's entrance is healthy for the community.

"There's nothing we'd like more than to be accessible," Brueggemann said. "We just haven't found a way to do it in a way that's feasible."

The question of Phenix Hall will be determined by lawyers, said Aiken, the ABLE NH president. The purpose of yesterday's demonstration was to teach people that spaces must be made accessible for everyone, she said.

"You can't put bricks and mortar in front of people for any reason," Aiken said. "Not for historic preservation. Not because it costs too much money. Not because ADA isn't clear."

After being lifted backward up the Works steps by her mother and a friend, Jennifer McIntosh, a 25-year-old student at Keene State University, rolled to the counter and ordered a cinnamon raisin bagel. When she returned outside, the group cheered.

Back at the Holiday Inn, Jody McIntosh, Jennifer McIntosh's mother, said she wished more people were there to see the demonstration. McIntosh said having a daughter with cerebral palsy has opened her eyes to the obstacles faced by people who use wheelchairs.

"It's a type of segregation that nobody really thinks about," she said. "If you don't push someone in a wheelchair, you don't see the problems."

(Karen Langley can be reached at 369-3316 or

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