Efforts to save historic Penacook building from demolition crumble

  • LEFT: American Legion Post 31 finance officer Ron Drapeau sits in the hall next to the Beede House. “It’s a hazard, a danger to the people,” Drapeau said about the old home.

  • The back of the Beede House off of Washington Street in Penacook on Monday, August 6, 2019. The American Legion Post 31 in Penacook was looking a renovating the house but the costs of doing are prohibitive. GEOFF FORESTER photos / Monitor staff

  • The front of the Beede House off of Washington Street in Penacook on Monday, August 6, 2019. The American Legion Post 31 in Penacook was looking a renovating the house but the costs of doing are prohibitive. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • The front of the Beede House off of Washington Street in Penacook. The American Legion Post 31 in Penacook was looking at renovating the house but the costs are prohibitive. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 8/17/2019 9:12:43 PM

The brick duplex at 12-14 Washington St. in Penacook, a former jewel of the village, has fallen far from its past days of glory.

Doors that once led into the back of the Beede House are boarded up with plywood. White paint is chipping on the exterior, the slate roof needs to be replaced. The old barn, attached to the 1860s-era home, was demolished in 2017. The connecting wall between the building is now exposed like an open wound. Squatters have broken into the building at night, doing even more damage, American Legion Post 31 finance officer Ron Drapeau said.

“I hear people in the neighborhood saying, ‘When is that coming down? Get that eyesore down. Someone’s going to get hurt,” Drapeau said. “It’s a hazard, a danger to the people.”

The building itself has been at the center of debate for years – some people in Penacook and Concord want to see the historic structure saved. Meanwhile, the owner, the American Legion, says it lacks the funds to restore the Beede House and has wanted to tear it down to build a new function hall. Now the Legion is back before the city looking to get its demolition permit.

The tension touches on the larger issue of a community’s historic preservation goals versus financial realities and individual property owners’ rights – a common struggle that plays out across the state as historically significant buildings fall into disrepair or are eyed for redevelopment.

In Penacook, the Beede House was once the residence of prominent business owners and has an architectural design that’s rarely seen in the city anymore, prompting efforts to save it back in 2016.

Although the city already issued the demolition permit, the Legion promised to come up with a plan to save the building. But now, less than three years later, the Legion says it hasn’t been able to raise the $2 million to pay for the renovation.

The Legion approached the city for another demolition permit last week. It should be granted any day now.

“We wanted to save it, we went through hoops and rings to try to do that, to appease the neighborhood,” Drapeau said. “Unfortunately, it was not cost-effective and we couldn’t.”

Some neighbors don’t believe the Legion ever intended to save the house. They say no one in the neighborhood has received official notice that the organization wants to tear it down again.

Ward 1 City Councilor Brent Todd said he believes the Legion has been on a “campaign of demolition by neglect” for years.

“It’s kind of obvious to everybody, this seems to be their plan,” he said. “I think when they were met with a lot of resistance, they must have gotten together and said, ‘Wait a minute, we have a problem. We should wait until things die down, cool off a bit, and then come back and take it down.’ ”

Todd Harbour, who owns two abutting houses on Washington Street, agreed.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that the Legion has let the building deteriorate to the point that public sentiment has built that it needs to be torn down, let it rot in place to the point where everyone says, ‘Thank God, take it down, it’s an eyesore,’ ” he said. “They never had any intention of saving it.”

History

The Beede House, the unofficial name for the home at 12-14 Washington St., is named for the Beede family, which owned Beede Electrical Instruments, a company that operated in New Hampshire for 100 years.

It was built in 1869 as a two-family home by a father and son-in-law named John Foss and John Goldsmith, according to the Penacook Historical Society.

The American Legion, however, has owned the house since 2008.

Jim Place, a local contractor and chairman of the building committee at the American Legion, said the veteran’s organization purchased the brick home with the intention of incorporating it into their function hall.

Since the early half of the 20th century, the Legion has owned nearby property at 11 Charles St. The function hall there is aging, and is not handicap accessible. It also doesn’t have the industrial kitchen equipment the veterans organization says it needs for its regular community breakfast events, where they invite the public to a meal at a reduced cost. They often hold receptions for memorial services free of charge for members.

Drapeau said he was surprised when people in the community fought so hard to save the house in 2016, when the Legion first planned to demolish it.

“To be honest, there were buildings destroyed in Concord that were way more historic than this building,” Drapeau said.

But the Legion tried to take their concerns seriously, Drapeau said. They put together a design for a function hall that preserved the house and added on a handicap-accessible, one-story building onto the back. Their request for a variance on parking for the amended building plan was approved by Concord’s zoning board.

“We didn’t want to create any hard feelings in the community,” he said.

A lot of people at the Legion have felt there’s an unfair stigma facing their organization, which contributed to the resistance they faced with their plan to build a new space, said Commander Bob Cook.

“I think that people got the feeling that this is just a drinking hole and it’s not,” Cook said. “You can just check our record. We’ve done a lot for the community. It just seems like they don’t want to give us any credit.”

The Legion holds an annual fishing derby every year in Boscawen for 250 local kids. They provide the flags that fly outside Merrimack Valley schools and give out scholarships every year to students. They sponsor sea cadets and local Boy Scout troops from Concord and Penacook.

Later this month, the American Legion’s 100th anniversary will by celebrated at Boscawen Old Home Day. The Legion is sponsoring patriotic floats that honor its history and the veterans who are members of the organization.

They haven’t been without missteps: American Legion 31 was penalized by the New Hampshire Liquor Commission Division of Enforcement & Licensing in 2016 for an overserving violation, according to Mark Armaganian, chief of enforcement for the Liquor Commission. But Armaganian said the Legion hadn’t had any similar violations in the last 10 years.

The Legion has been making strides to change community perception. In May, it voted overwhelmingly to ban smoking indoors, something that failed last time they tried, four or five years ago, Drapeau said.

“In the past, it was like that, we would smoke and drink. ‘We’re veterans, we deserve it,’ ” Drapeau said. “But the mindset has changed. In the recent years, people want to stay healthy.

“You shouldn’t blame the entire establishment on the actions of just a few, because they aren’t here anymore,” Drapeau said.

The Legion is hoping to grow beyond its current 200 members, which includes New Hampshire House Speaker Steve Shurtleff. Only 40 or so are active, Drapeau said.

In addition, President Donald Trump signed an order that now allows any veteran to join the Legion, not just those who were active during times of conflict, which was the rule before.

What’s next

Members of the community found out about the Legion’s plans to raze the building in 2016 because the word “demo” was written on the building in white chalk. This time, there has been no notice.

The city’s demolition review process is fairly rapid and often doesn’t leave enough time for preservationists to save a building once the wrecking ball is ready to swing.

When a demolition application is filed, the city has five days to determine if the building is historically significant. If so, the application is forwarded to the Demolition Review Committee, which is part of the Concord Heritage Commission. That group can schedule a public hearing about the demolition permit.

The committee can suggest alternatives and photograph the building with the owner’s consent, it cannot actually stop a demolition from taking place. The process cannot take more than 49 days.

Recently in Concord, community members tried to save St. Peter’s Church from demolition to no avail. The Demolition Review Committee voted 2-1 in favor of considering the building “historically or architecturally significant,” but after 49 days with no alternative reached, the Diocese of Manchester received its demolition permit and the church came down.

This time, the Legion doesn’t need to go through the entire demolition review process that it did three years ago, according to city officials, which leaves little room for public input.

Ginnie Pinard, who has lived in the neighborhood for 41 years, said she doesn’t think Legion members lied about their desire to renovate the building.

“I think they were just in over their heads in the beginning, they didn’t understand what the cost was,” she said. “I think they were naive.”

Pinard, who said she loves the old house and once dreamed of buying it herself, said it’s probably too far gone to be saved at this point.

Place said the Legion knew when it agreed to preserve the Beede House, the organization didn’t have the money to do it.

He said he was hoping the Legion might be able to work something out with the bank, or that a community member might offer them a hefty donation.

“You never know, sometimes you get some money from places you don’t expect it,” he said.

Place said at that time, the construction industry wasn’t what it is today.

“When we first had this on the drawing board, we had people dropping off business cards wanting to work on it. Now, you can’t even get anybody to get you a bid.”

Place said they approached three contractors with the project. Two told them they didn’t want to touch the project. One local contractor gave them the $2 million estimate. The Legion’s budget for the function hall is around $1.2 million.

“I think people don’t really dig into it enough to understand,” Place said. “They say, save the building, just renovate it. It’s not $100.”

Place said the Legion explored selling the building through word of mouth.

Place said the house has cost them a lot through the years. They have spent a lot of money on designs. They pay $8,000 a year in property taxes, he said.

Drapeau said most members have accepted at this point, that they won’t be saving the Beede House.

“Some were saddened by it, but others thought, well, life goes on and we’ll just take a different avenue,” he said. “Believe me, we did everything in our power to save it. We just couldn’t spend $2 million.”


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