Concord moves ahead with attempts to save historic gasholder building

  • The iconic gasholder building on South Main Street in Concord is seen on Monday, Jan. 29, 2018. The structure has been added to the National Register of Historic Places. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz

  • Pat Meyers (center) and Alex Ray (right) stand on South Main Street in Concord during the Save the Gasholder event on Tuesday, December 29, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER

Monitor staff
Published: 1/15/2021 2:53:04 PM

Concord is moving ahead with the next stage of trying to save the gasholder building, but even backers say that cost and questions about liability for contamination will make it difficult.

“I support this but it’s going to be a tough row to hoe,” said Concord City Councilor Erle Pierce at Monday’s meeting.

The council unanimously accepted a report from the ad hoc Gasholder Committee telling city staff to meet with Liberty Utilities and others for discussions about an “immediate action plan” to stabilize the historic brick building. No city spending would be involved without further action and the vote does not commit the city to do anything more, they said.

“We’re committed to moving forward, committed to the first phase, to lay the groundwork for next phase,” said Councilor Byron Champlin, who chaired the committee. “I do not think . . . we are in any way committing ourselves otherwise, other than engaged in trying to find a solution.”

If successful, this first phase would be followed by what the report calls an Opportunity Bridge Phase, involving a new ownership model and fundraising, and then a final stage of restoration and development of the neighborhood. A report prepared for the committee estimated that stabilizing the building would cost at least $400,000, while restoring it as a monument would cost millions.

Liberty Utilities wants to demolish the building because of safety concerns. The company has said it will contribute the amount that demolition would cost to preservation efforts, but only if it can guarantee that it won’t be stuck with any future costs related to the building.

The round gasholder, constructed in 1888, stored so-called “manufactured gas” made from coal brought to the property by rail. This ended in 1952 when natural gas game to the Concord.

Considerable cleanup of the property has taken place, including demolition of a second gasholder made of metal, mitigation of soil contamination has to continue. It’s unclear what contamination exists inside and under the gasholder building itself.

At Monday’s meeting some councilors raised concern about Concord becoming entangled in future costs for cleaning up residue on the 2.4-acre property. Liberty Utilities has said that it is legally required to pay for cleanup in perpetuity but it’s less clear how any future changes to the gasholder building might affect that status, particularly since the state Public Utilities Commission would have a say in any costs that would be picked up by customers.

“There are many unanswered questions that need to be resolved prior to any transfer of property to the city,” said City Solicitor James Kennedy.

Monday’s meeting included an intriguing note about the anonymous donor who has pledged $500,000 as a catalyst for improvements to the gasholder: Champlin said the person “apparently comes from outside the country.”

Manufactured gas was used for lighting and heat in the downtown before natural gas arrived in 1952. The brick gasholder, 88 feet in diameter and almost 30 feet high in the center, is a single circular room that holds a massive metal cap that floated over as much as 120,000 cubic feet of coal gas.

It appears to be the only gasholder building in the country that still has all of its mechanisms intact, including the floating cap, which greatly increases its historic value. The building has decayed considerably in recent years, especially after a tree punched a hole in the roof in 2014 allowing moisture inside.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)


David Brooks bio photo

David Brooks is a reporter and the writer of the sci/tech column Granite Geek and blog, as well as moderator of the monthly Science Cafe Concord events. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in mathematics he became a newspaperman, working in Virginia and Tennessee before spending 28 years at the Nashua Telegraph . He joined the Monitor in 2015.

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