hgazette.com, Haverhill, MA

August 15, 2007

In praise of historic buildings

Constantine Valhouli

More and more Haverhill residents resent what is happening to our city. Our architectural and historical legacy is being destroyed by rampant development that will permanently alter Haverhill’s character.

The old farmhouses between Bradford and North Andover are being demolished for strip malls. This former rural road is beginning to look like the endless commercial strip in Plaistow, N.H. Generic vinyl-sided, two-family houses seem to be shoehorned onto every buildable lot. Developments such as the stucco CVS in Monument Square and the monstrous Franchi building should never have been built in Haverhill. Our town is at risk of becoming yet another piece of New England where the distinct historic buildings are replaced by standardized real estate that fills a market need, but does not enhance the town’s charming historic character.

It’s not that we’re against development — we’d like to encourage the right sort of development. Historic preservation helps us protect what is good, and architectural review helps us prevent what is bad. When was the last time a new building that complemented our town’s history was erected in Haverhill?

There is no typical Haverhill house. Haverhill was founded in 1640, and its historic buildings reflect the town’s more than 300 years of prosperity. The elegant First Period and Federal homes, the Victorians of the Highlands and the stately Colonials of South Main Street would not be out of place in Brookline or Nantucket.

These buildings and districts shape Haverhill’s distinct visual identity and communicate its heritage. How different would downtown Newburyport feel without its picket fences and sea captains’ houses? The charm of historic neighborhoods is the sense that you’ve stepped into a living part of the city with tangible links to the past.

Without preservation measures and architectural review, Haverhill’s heritage is increasingly at risk. Vinyl siding and asphalt shingles obscure the details of these beautiful houses. Chain-link fences replace the original wooden pickets. Careless renovations destroy the architectural integrity of historic interiors and exteriors. We’ve all driven past historic houses being “renovated,” only to see Dumpsters full of original doors, paneling and fireplace mantles.

Why does this matter? There is a comforting sense of continuity knowing that you are sitting in the same room as Alexander Graham Bell or walking the same streets as Hannah Dustin or John Greenleaf Whittier. Haverhill’s buildings connect us to the town’s storied past. For example, Roland H. Macy had his first store in the Merrimack Street building that now houses the A-1 Deli. Rob Zombie lived at 10 Pond St. in Bradford when he was still Robert Cummings. The 17th-century home of Haverhill’s founder, William White, still stands at 86 Mill St. with most of its original details intact.

What have we lost to demolition? In 1789, George Washington’s victory tour brought him up Merrimack Street and he stayed at Harrod’s Tavern on Main Street. The tavern was later demolished to build City Hall, which was itself demolished during Urban Renewal. In 1907, future film mogul Louis Mayer bought the Gem Theater in downtown Haverhill. A city with more vision would have preserved Mayer’s theaters; instead, they became parking lots during Urban Renewal. Nothing remains of the home of settler Tristram Coffin, who left Haverhill in 1659 to found Nantucket, or of artist Bob Montana, who created Archie Comics in 1941.

The buildings that remain remind us that Haverhill was once something far greater than what it is today. And that is a valuable reminder, for it encourages us to ask how we first developed, and why we have declined. Short-sighted city leaders have little use for history. Many preservation efforts are being met with apathy or outright resistance. Mayor Fiorentini’s 40R district design standards barely contain any plans for preservation, and his new Downtown Master Plan classifies many older buildings as “obsolete” and recommends demolishing them. Those buildings are not obsolete; the Master Plan’s municipal thinking is.

This is not nostalgia; there is considerable evidence that heritage assets can be powerful catalysts for economic development. Towns such as Amesbury, Andover and Newburyport are good models for how to grow without compromising the town’s character. A historic downtown, if it is thoughtfully revived, can be a significant advantage as Haverhill competes for residents with other nearby towns. The impact of historic buildings on a neighborhood is far larger than their actual footprint. Antique houses, historic districts and period downtowns have typically been a draw for upper-middle class residents. There needs to be an increased effort to raise awareness of the significance of these buildings, and demolition of historic buildings should be the last resort instead of the first option.

Mayor Fiorentini’s Downtown Master Plan contained no support for historic preservation or architectural review. Instead, consultant Aaron Gruen recommended leveling additional buildings and encouraged us to decorate downtown with “giant fiberglass shoes” to “pay homage to our city’s heritage” as a center of industry during the Victorian era.

Gruen’s recommendations would perpetuate the problems that caused some of downtown’s decline through Urban Renewal. Remarkably, neither Newburyport nor Salem leveled their downtown Federal buildings and replaced them with giant fiberglass whales. They have prospered while Haverhill has declined, because Newburyport and Salem have preserved their identity, their sense of place. Haverhill’s heritage can be a powerful economic catalyst — but not if it ends up in a landfill.

Throughout history, civic leaders have prided themselves on their ability to shape the look of their city. The most famous of these was Julius Caesar, of whom it was said, “he found Rome a city of brick, and he left it a city of marble.” With Mayor Fiorentini’s resistance to historic preservation and architectural review, perhaps the next generation will say that Fiorentini found Haverhill a city of brick, and is leaving it a city of stucco and strip malls.

Constantine A. Valhouli is a principal of The Hammersmith Group, a firm which advises developers of luxury properties, and consults to cities on reviving historic downtowns. The firm and its projects have been featured in Fast Company, Forbes, Fortune, NPR, Urban Land and the Wall Street Journal.