An ode to Manchester’s Victorian architecture

Former Central Fire Station on Vine Street with its high Victorian tower resembling Pandora - razed in 1971

Several writers and commentators have detailed the Victorian architecture in Manchester, some even describing it as a thoroughly Victorian city. Few have done so as beautifully as Laura Silverman, a comic and actress in her own right and sister of Sarah Silverman, who recently explained to New Hampshire magazine what she loves about her home state:

I spent my formative years in the suburbs of the “big” city of Manchester, on a lively, lovely street, in a ’60s-style ranch house with a swimming pool, nestled in amongst the birth of our country – the massive, Victorian homes, stained in deep jewel tones, spooky and romantic with their endless peaks and gables and enchanting wrap-around porches…

One of Manchester’s greatest assets is its wealth of Victorian architecture–from the high flourishes of the Millyard towers and North End mansions, to the rhythm and repetition of the old Amoskeag boardinghouses and the gentle curvature of the mills, to the simple, restrained forms of countless houses and apartments on leafy side streets throughout the city.

An eclectic Victorian mansion - the main building of Notre Dame College from 1950-2000 - photo by Will Stewart
An especially well-preserved Victorian apartment building in Hanover Hill - photo from the Pillar Manors
The recently restored Pandora Mill with its iconic high Victorian tower - photo by Althea Haropulos Photographers
A typical Victorian house in Manchester - tall with simple surfaces adorned with strategic flourishes - photo from Granite House

Sadly, Manchester has lost many of its Victorian landmarks to disaster as well as misguided planning. Urban renewal spared most of the major, free-standing mill buildings, but claimed all of the graceful, curving buildings between the survivors. The bolder curve of the Barr & Clapp building in Granite Square fell as late as the 1980s, and the muscular Webster Street firehouse was razed in favor of a respectful replacement that pays tribute to its Victorian predecessor in the 1990s. The abandoned Lake Ave firehouse, long a fixture dueling with the Odd Fellows’ Dearborn Hall in the Hollow, ironically succumbed to a fire in 2002.

Former Webster Street Firehouse - razed and replaced in the 1990s - photo from John Clayton's "In the City"

Still, most of Manchester’s Victorian heritage still stands; and where Portsmouth may be defined by its Federal architecture, Manchester remains an undeniably Victorian city to this day. It’s impossible to miss the “deep jewel tones” and “endless peaks and gables”, as well as the tell-tale verticality–tall and narrow–bay windows and decorative trim of Victorian houses, businesses and blocks throughout downtown and in Manchester’s urban neighborhoods.

Like so many other American cities, Manchester saw many middle-class families move to the suburbs–whether neighboring towns or farther-flung neighborhoods in the city–in the decades after World War II, and many of the city’s beautiful Victorian buildings were purchased by absentee landlords. Unlike homeowners, owner-occupied apartment buildings or even buildings owned by neighbors, these out-of-town owners did not have a stake in the neighborhoods around their buildings, so they didn’t mind if installing maintenance-free vinyl siding meant removing critical trim and details. Stripping once elegant, finely detailed buildings down to bland, vinyl-clad monoliths may not be as permanent as tearing them down, but it’s nearly as inhumane.

Fortunately, there have been positive trends in historic preservation in Manchester recently. NeighborWorks has shown that by removing cheap siding and restoring key details, as they have on several buildings in the West Granite area of Piscataquog, a long-lost sense of charm and beauty can be restored to a historically Victorian neighborhood.

A single-family Victorian restored by Neighborworks in West Granite
A triple-decker Victorian restored by NeighborWorks in West Granite

The Victorian era has been over for a century now, and new interpretations of the style tend to look cheap and hokey. Manchester’s architecture is hardly uniform, but it is predominantly Victorian, and those buildings that survive must be preserved and restored where necessary. Manchester’s Victorian architecture is sometimes overlooked compared to the prominence of the mills, but it is key to the identity of the city, and as Laura Silverman shows, to the identity of the people who call it home.

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