It’s been several decades now since the elegant Barr & Clapp Building, also called the Crescent Building, was demolished in the 1980s. The handsome, curved brick building stood at the intersection of South Main and Granite Streets, in the heart of Granite Square, for roughly a century before being replaced by a single-story retail building, home to Stacie’s Barber Shop and other shops, with a sunken plaza out front.
With the demolition of the Barr & Clapp, Granite Square lost not only its most significant landmark, but also its sense-of-place. The square is now dominated by an ever-widening Granite Street, the Burns Apartments tower, a Dunkin Donuts and a gas station. The Manchester Housing & Redevelopment Authority, no doubt trying to improve the square following a fire, led the demolition of Granite Square thirty years ago. Astonishingly, the MHRA still promote that redevelopment along with other long-since discredited projects as past projects that they claim were “instrumental in shaping the skyline of the city and helped create the vibrant, growing economy” on its website:
Following a fire which destroyed the Crescent Building on the corner of Granite and Main Streets, a number of buildings in the immediate vicinity were removed to make way for the commercial and retail offices and stores that exist today. Across the street MHRA built the Reverend Raymond A. Burns O.S.B. Apartments.
It’s true that those were different times, and cities have since learned the immense harm to communities caused by such wide-scale projects aimed at totally remaking (or simply razing) neighborhoods. Nowadays, most cities and developers act with a scalpel, not a chainsaw, delicately adding to, infilling or reconfiguring parts of urban neighborhoods.
And that’s why it’s so disheartening to read that the MHRA is now proposing to demolish one of the oldest buildings remaining in Granite Square. Even more concerning is that they’re proposing to replace one of the last street-facing retail spaces along South Main Street with a residential development. The old West Side Lumber Mill currently houses the OPUS consignment shop, which is planning to move to a new location near St. Anselm College.
Those with mental illnesses deserve a safe, comfortable place to live as much as anyone else does, and on paper, the proposal to build apartments where they can live independently within walking distance of shops, services and public transit is clearly a worthy one. But the siting is all wrong. A simple change of site planning would allow the old lumber mill and the new housing development to exist side-by-side. Just north of OPUS, between its parking lot and the Piscataquog River, is an old cellar hole, left after a fire destroyed the building there in the 1990s. Building the apartments on that site, and perhaps part of the large parking lot behind it, would not only save the old lumber mill and accommodate the new housing, but it would fill a void in the street wall along South Main Street. To make the proposal even stronger, the MHRA could build a taller building and set aside some of the street-level space for retail use.
Not every old building is worth saving, but the City’s own master plan calls for preserving the city’s architectural and industrial heritage. Tearing down one of the last remnants of the 19th-century industrial activity along the Piscataquog is clearly at odds with that sentiment. Even more important, it’s at odds with a vision for a brighter future for Manchester and specifically the West Side. Razing the old lumber mill will leave Granite Square with even less of its built history to build upon for the future, and it will remove one of the few street-facing retail spaces, which are critical for growing a vibrant neighborhood center, left in the square. The idea of building apartments for those with mental illnesses is an admirable one, but it should not require losing one of the last vestiges of one of the West Side’s once vibrant neighborhood centers, much less the possibility for Granite Square to regain that vibrancy in the future.