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The High Cost of Standing Still

Restoring Paul Jones fence/

We may have gotten carried away with making new buildings in Portsmouth look old. But looking old, for many Seacoast cities, is like money in the bank. But who pays for the quality of life we treasure? Probably not you, the restaurant owner, the banker or the tourist.




Keeping Old New England Old Ain't Cheap

History repeats itself, and around here that's no accident. Still early in the 21st century, the preservation-minded Seacoast region appears increasingly unwilling to let bygones be bygones. When it comes to architecture, at least, it's chic to be old, and, many agree, the nostalgia trend is the shape of things to come.

Multimillion dollar restoration of North Church steeple, Portsmouth, NH. SeacoastNH.comThe desire to salvage the historic flavor of the Seacoast is a relatively new concept started in the late 1800s during what historians call the Colonial Revival period. Many of the famous houses now open to the public were "saved" and restored to their original splendor starting at the turn of the century. That impetus culminated in the creation of Strawbery Banke, with over 30 preserved houses, in the late 1960s. Olde York Village in nearby Maine is another splendid example.

The latest wave of rebuilding started, for Portsmouth at least, with the renaissance of Market Square in the mid-1970s. New trees, brick sidewalks, annual festivals and a designated historic district worked wonders. Tourists and locals flocked to what had been a fading seaport. Though limited parking remains a problem, and some complain of too much pedestrian and vehicular traffic, the rebirth of the old "Parade" area continues. Banks have been recycled into shops, shops into restaurants. When developers created the brick structure behind the North Church at Ten Pleasant Street, the new design was nearly identical to the building that was there a century before. Monstrous new structures on Congress, Market and Hanover streets have all been bricked-faced to keep that beloved industrial look of the 18th century.

Dover, too, has worked to revive its river port image. The Garrison City has rediscovered the Cocheco River, once the focus of city's survival. The new Henry Law Park area has a Victorian motif and a new "old-fashioned" covered bridge nearby where the meandering oxbow river meets the city center.

Restoring Portsmouth Music Hall/

The decision to use attractive trolleys in a number of Seacoast towns rather than traditional buses, according to one city planner is the city's emphasis on "fast and fun" travel. "That's what we've lost since the trolleys and trains went away -- fast and fun," he emphasizes. Of course these new diesel-powered vehicles only look like traditional trolleys – that were originally horse drawn and then powered by overhead electric rails. But it is the "feeling" of the past that comforts us, not the reality.

In recent years Dover and Exeter made tracks to revive passenger train service that once flourished here. Sleepy rail lines now support swift Amtrak trains travelling up to 80 mph streaking from Boston to Portland. Portsmouth, the city that trashed its Victorian railway station during urban renewal, would be wise to link back to its railway too.

Unlike such "replica" destinations as Sturbridge Village, Plimouth Plantation and Colonial Williamsburgh, Portsmouth has long regarded itself as a truly "authentic" historic city. Whether the average tourist cares if his history is authentic or reproduced is a question still up for grabs. A small percentage of Portsmouth’s visiting population actually go inside any of the historic buildings on display. Most are content to simply soak up the peaceful vibes that come from a well-landscaped colonial mansion – then they’re off to the bars and restaurants and shops. Portsmouth is also notoriously bad at building reconstruction’s. With the exception of the floating flat-bottomed gundalow, launched here in the 1980s, other reconstruction projects have fallen flat. In 40 years the city has been unable to rebuild its colonial statehouse and efforts to replicate the 18th century tall ships Ranger and Raleigh have not made it beyond the cheerleading phase.

CONTINUE Historic Preservation 

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Friday, December 15, 2017 
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