Let’s Better Use Cool Old Buildings

This freight shed in Canaan could be something (wicked) cool.

We should be more creative when it comes to reusing rural New Hampshire’s historic and obsolete building stock. I wrote my master’s thesis on this topic, so if you’re one of ninety-three who downloaded it from my alma mater’s digital library, feel free to skip this post.

Here’s my condensed argument: New Hampshire’s towns are filled with underused or unused buildings, often owned by local government or historical societies, and we should strive to reuse them in a manner that better serves the public.

Wentworth Historical Society is headquartered in a former depot. A good use for the building.

Dorchester Historical Society is headquartered in this schoolhouse. A good use for the building.

For example, more than forty of our state’s historical societies (there are about 200 in total) own two or more properties. Grafton has six; Andover has four; Sutton has three. Some historical societies have buildings too big for their collections. In my experience, historical societies see their mission as converting these schoolhouses, Grange Halls, former libraries, or depots into museums. One museum is a great asset to a community. A local museum serves as a depository for photographs, objects, and memories. I am an advocate of museums.

But on a summer weekend, I can choose to visit sixteen – sixteen! – schoolhouse museums within twenty-five miles of my house. I love history and I love restored old buildings – it’s my passion and my profession. But I think I’ve visited just four of those museums (Danbury, Andover, Dorchester, and Canaan). And again – I’m the target audience.

The truth is that we need to be more creative in reusing these old buildings. According to NH Employment Security, towns in my area have a poverty rate over 15%. Combine that with a per capita income around $23,000/year and it becomes obvious why few people in town care about raising money to restore windows in an unused building.

Opportunities abound for using these old buildings in more meaningful ways.

Grafton’s Pines Schoolhouse. Not yet a museum (because one already exists).

Our old buildings would get more appreciation if more people could see them, feel them, and use them. I often wonder if one of Grafton’s schoolhouses – proposed as a museum – could instead be used as a food pantry or a tool library or a daycare. I’m currently restoring some windows for Canaan’s museum – a gorgeous former academy located adjacent to the town beach and across the road from an equally gorgeous meetinghouse. The building’s second floor is empty, but eyed for museum expansion. Would a better use be converting the space into an apartment? That would give the historical society revenue and keep the building heated and occupied.

Also in Canaan, a derelict freight shed (see above) could be a museum about the Northern Railroad…OR it could be a restaurant/bike shop/ice cream shop that benefits from its proximity to today’s Northern Rail Trail, downtown Canaan, parks, and a cluster of other businesses. Its rear loading dock could be rebuilt and used as outdoor eating space that abuts the longest rail trail in our state.

Canaan’s freight shed from the rail trail. Can you see the potential?

There are good examples of adaptive reuse in our state. In South Acworth, the historical society purchased the last operating general store and re-opened it.  Canaan’s former Grange Hall is now a senior center. In Peterborough, our own blogger Erika Rosenfeld, is embarking on converting the former G.A.R. Hall into a brewery. Grange Halls in Wilton Center and Rollinsford are now community theaters. A schoolhouse in Warner is a cafe. These are cool ideas that beget more cool ideas and hopefully retain or attract more talent.

These projects will only happen, however, if more young people offer their ideas and take some risks. Even on my historical society of septuagenarians, people have been more receptive to change than I anticipated. New Hampshire’s countryside is our oyster. Let’s do some cool stuff.

3 Responses to “Let’s Better Use Cool Old Buildings”

  1. Erika RosenfeldJanuary 30, 2017 at 9:02 am #

    So many possibilities! Love this article.

  2. Jane B. JohnsonJune 6, 2018 at 8:32 am #

    Kudos, Andrew! What a wonderful article! Change is difficult, but you have illustrated how important it is. Change can actually save the object we want to preserve. You can have your building and use it, too!
    Thank you for all you do to keep NH meaningful and beautiful.

  3. doctordavisAugust 8, 2019 at 1:01 pm #

    I agree, but in my experience zoning and other regulations stand in the way. Also, someone has to pay the property taxes that sent us and others to school at Mascoma. My family owned a restaurant on the rail trail for many years. Due to high property taxes and utility bills (esp. for heat) it did not make money on food. Only on the ice cream in the summer. There is not enough business in these small towns to keep more than one restaurant viable. If you apply for preservation grants, there are usually strings attached. Why don’t you start a business to carry out your dreams? The town of Canaan owns the freight station. Make them an offer. Why don’t you buy it and live in it? Canaan has no zoning!

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