Owner of Concord’s gasholder building may choose demolition if it can’t be preserved

  • The inside of the Gasholder building on South Main Street showing the roof and the scaffolding that rises from the base. GEOFF FORESTER

  • 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

  • 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

  • One of the entrance areas with signifigant roof damage to the structure of the Gasholder building on South Main Street. GEOFF FORESTER

  • 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

  • The Concord gasholder house was damaged in a recent storm when a tree fell on the roof of the nineteenth century structure. Photographed on Tuesday, July 2, 2013. ALEXANDER COHN

  • Concord’s historic gasholder building in the South End is facing demolition. Monitor file

  • This interior view of the gasholder shows one of 14 windows, gasholder guide sheaves and stairs to the cupola.

  • The view from inside the gasholder through the doorway to the valve house.

Monitor staff
Published: 10/20/2020 3:47:23 PM

It’s now or never for the gasholder.

The unique round brick building in south Concord has just become the first structure to ever make a return visit to the “Seven to Save” list put out annually by the New Hampshire Preservation Alliance. It was on the list in 2013 and it’s on the list again this year.

That return is a sign of the gasholder’s historical significance – it has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places – but is also a sign of the obstacles it faces, since the first Seven to Save designation didn’t save it.

“This is a rare move by the preservation alliance, done because of its national significance and the timetable for its potential loss,” said Jennifer Goodman, the Preservation Alliance’s executive director.

Liberty Utilities, the reluctant owner of the gasholder and its 2.4-acre surroundings, has indicated that it may apply for a demolition permit by the end of the year if a solution isn’t found.

The company obtained the building in 2012 when it bought National Grid’s gas business in New Hampshire, but the building hasn’t been part of the gas network for decades and Liberty Utilities doesn’t want to pay the estimated $1.5 million to keep the gasholder from falling down.

That cost is one of the things that the city council’s Gasholder Committee wants to re-examine.

“We are seeking another engineering review of the building using an engineer who specializes in historic buildings,” said Councilor-at-Large Byron Champlin, who chairs the committee. “Modern engineering firms … who are not familiar with older buildings, they tend not to attribute any value to some of the older architectural techniques.”

“The idea is to see if there are alternatives to demolition.”

Champlin pointed to the Abbott House on North State Street, which an initial examination said could not be saved but which, after a follow-up study, has been preserved as part of the Abbott Farm condominium development.

The gasholder near Exit 13 was built in 1888 to store and release gas made from coal brought to the site in rail cars. The gas was used for lighting and heat downtown before natural gas arrived in Concord in 1952.

The building, 88 feet in diameter and almost 30 feet high in the center, is a single circular room that holds a massive floating metal cap which could contain up to 120,000 cubic feet of coal gas.

Gasholder buildings were once around the country and many still remain, sometimes turned into offices or museums. One exists at St. Paul’s School, refurbished into a post office.

But Concord’s gasholder is probably unique because it still contains the entire mechanism, including the many-ton cap atop the gas, which floated up and down as an indication of how full the building was. This increases its historic value but complicates reuse.

Also complicating things is decay since the building was shut. A tree fell on it in 2014, knocking a large hole in the slate roof, and the entranceway collapsed in 2016 and had to be removed.

A 2019 study by GZA Geoenvironmental for Liberty Utilities said it would cost $1.4 million to $1.93 million to keep the round, brick building from falling down and much more to make it safe for the public to enter. The GZA report details many issues, including the tilted cupola atop the building, which allegedly was twisted in the Hurricane of 1938, and large amounts of bird guano which, when combined with moisture, “can accelerate steel corrosion.”

Champlin said Liberty Utilities has indicated that the company would be willing to preserve the building if it can be stabilized for the cost of demolishing it, which GZA estimated would be around $500,000.

The Gasholder Committee is slated to issue a report to the mayor and city council with recommendations early in December.

“It has value as a gateway structure to the city that is distinctive, defining of Concord’s history. It’s one of those buildings, like the railroad station, that we look back with regret that we didn’t do everything to preserve it,” said Champlin.

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

Online discussion

The New Hampshire Preservation Alliance will hold an online discussion about Concord’s gasholder building on Tuesday, Cct. 27, at 5:30 p.m. See the website (nhpreservation.org/events-calendar) for details.

David Brooks bio photo

David Brooks is a reporter and the writer of the sci/tech column Granite Geek and blog granitegeek.org, as well as moderator of 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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