Editorial: Saving the future of the city’s past

  • The front of the Beede House off of Washington Street in Penacook on Monday, Aug. 6. The building was demolished on Sept. 3. GEOFF FORESTER

Published: 9/15/2019 7:00:36 AM

Another one bites the dust. Earlier this month, Penacook’s historic 1860s Beede House, owned by the adjacent American Legion Post, was torn down. Critics of its demolition say it was a victim of malign neglect. Fail to fix a leaking roof, replace broken windows and conduct routine maintenance, and eventually a structure deteriorates enough that its owner can claim that it is beyond repair.

For years, malign neglect put Concord’s iconic gasholder, the only building of its kind left in the United States, in danger of collapse. Liberty Utilities, the owner of the round, brick building on South Main Street, has stabilized the historic structure but has yet to offer a plan to preserve it.

Owner neglect caused the oldest inn and tavern building in the city to deteriorate to the point of disrepair that its new owners, the State Employees Association, sought to demolish it. A major effort to save the 1806 building, including a market price offer from a buyer willing to restore the structure, failed to prevent its destruction. The site is now an empty, often trash-strewn lot surrounded by a chain-link fence.

City ordinances can slow, but not stop, the demolition of a piece of the city’s history. The city has just five days, once a demolition application has been filed, to decide if the property is historic. If it is, the application goes to the city’s demolition review committee, which works with the owner to try to find a way to preserve the structure. The committee can take no more than 49 days to jawbone and search for alternatives. After that, a permit is automatic.

Balancing private property rights with a community’s desire to preserve and protect its past isn’t easy. The rules are stricter in historic districts but Concord has just two, its downtown and North Main Street from the Kimball-Jenkins Manse north. Since many historic structures now have modern neighbors, perhaps the city should designate all buildings a century or more old as historic. It’s clear that existing historic preservation tools are not up to the task.

Owner neglect allowed Abbott House, built in 1760 during the French and Indian War, to suffer enough water damage that the developer currently finishing Abbott Village, the North State Street luxury condominium complex, argued that it was beyond saving.

The building’s condition became a matter of dispute.

City Councilor Allan Herschlag, at the August meeting of the city’s heritage commission, attributed the building’s condition directly to neglect. There were no signs of damage 15 years ago when the farm was sold to developer Yves Tanguay, he said. The project went into bankruptcy and was purchased by developer Jason Garland, who is completing it.

The terms of the agreement between the project’s developers and the city require that the farmhouse be restored before the city issues occupancy permits for the remaining condo units. A preservation expert hired at the behest of the city concluded that the main house and its shed and barn are salvageable but the home’s ell is not. Condo buyers may argue that they are being unfairly harmed by a delay in issuing occupancy permits, but caveat emptor. Preserving Abbott House was part of the deal from the outset.

There are ladders up, repairs are being done and leaks sealed under Garland’s supervision. But this time the city should hang tough and refuse to grant occupancy permits until Abbott House is restored to the planning board’s satisfaction under the agreement. Concord is in need of better tools to stem the loss of historic buildings. Until it gets them, it should at every opportunity refuse to reward malign neglect.

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