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  • Writer's pictureD. Maurice Kreis

Apartments as Self-Storage on Main Street in Concord

Fellow residents of our fair city of Concord, New Hampshire: If you need yet more evidence of how civilization itself is in the toilet swirl, look no further than today’s announcement from City Hall.

I refer to the June 20, 2022 news that demolition of the former home of the New Hampshire Department of Employment Security at 32 South Main Street will soon begin, followed by the construction of a new building that will add 64 apartments to Concord’s housing stock along with ”upwards of $275,000 of new property taxes annually.”

Nobody would quibble with that. We need the apartments. We need the tax money. What we don’t need is a graceless and ugly monolith on what is still, after all, the grand boulevard that is also home to our state capitol. That makes it not just Concord’s Main Street but New Hampshire’s Main Street.

Count me among those who retain some residual affection for the quirky building that now occupies the site. Employment Security fled the premises in 2014 and set up shop at a newly renovated and far more handsome home in the Hugh Gallen State Office Park, also known as the old State Hospital.

Thirty Two South Main is a garden variety building that, at some point, acquired a façade that evokes, admittedly in extremely attenuated fashion, the sort of great midcentury modern office building architecture epitomized by Lever House on Park Avenue in Manhattan by the storied architecture firm of Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill (SOM).

I have no idea who decided to imitate SOM on Main Street in Concord. But installing four yellow panels at the top two floors, to flag the street entrance two stories below, happens to be one of the most distinctive acts of architecture, and perhaps the most colorful, anywhere in the capital city. Maybe that’s a testament to just how bland and boring most buildings in northern New England have come to be.

Alumni of New Hampshire’s resident Ivy League institution, of which I am not one, may recall the demolition 17 years ago of a similarly quirky and SOM-esque pair of buildings, Bradley and Gerry Halls, that were more popularly known as the “Shower Towers.” Designed by local architects Edgar Hayes Hunter and Margaret King Hunter. Bradley and Gerry gained their nickname because the panels decorating the outside of those structures reminded everyone of a (cheerfully decorated) bathroom.

But where Dartmouth razed the Shower Towers in 2005 to build a reasonably distinguished building (Kemeny Hall and the Haldeman Center, designed by Bruner/Cott and Moore Ruble Yudel and certified LEED Silver), the apartment building we are getting at 32 South Main Street in Concord will be a study in dreary forgettability.

“Please require some kind of thoughtful street façade design,” urged State Rep. Rebecca McWilliams on the City’s Facebook page. “This is a pig with no lipstick.” McWilliams is well-qualified to offer this assessment not just because she is part of the Concord legislative delegation but because she is herself an architect (and a lawyer – great combo!).

“Too bad it has to be so ugly,” I lamented on my own Facebook page, which prompted a highly useful response from my friend Chris Skoglund of Clean Energy New Hampshire. Chris simply provided a link to this 2018 story from Curbed.

A wave of sameness has washed over new residential architecture,” complained the author, urbanism and architecture columnist Patrick Sisson. “U.S. cities are filled with apartment buildings sporting boxy designs and somewhat bland facades, often made with colored panels and flat windows.

“Oh, you get colored panels?,” one might complain to the architects and planners in those cities whose apartmental banality Sisson bemoans. We in Concord appear to be foregoing color, with its vestiges of vitality, in favor of aggressively inconspicuous grey.

For the trend he identified in 2018, Sisson blames a lack of developable land, an acute need for more affordable housing, soaring costs (exacerbated, obviously, in the COVID era that arrived after Sisson’s piece), and constraints imposed by local building codes and zoning restrictions.

“The reason our cities are filled with so much of the same kind of building is because it’s the cheapest way to build an apartment, Sisson noted. “Many units get made to a standard size . . . . Repeat that a few times per floor, maximized to create rentable space, and you start a domino effect toward generic architecture, because the floor plates end up very similar. Once the interior is laid out, there are ways to make the exterior look more interesting using setbacks, materials, and massing. But giving up space for units and creating more complicated construction plans cuts into profitability.

Hello “value engineering,” to invoke the shorthand phrase commonly invoked to explain why nobody seems to be building today that which will be worthy of landmark preservation tomorrow.

The City has announced that the new apartment building at 32 South Main Street is being developed by the John Flatley Company, which is based in Massachusetts. Among its other recent projects here in New Hampshire is one identified as “Nashua Self Storage.”

The drawing of the Concord project posted by the city includes the word “Signage” over the entrance, suggesting, perhaps, that the choice of a name remains in the future. “Concord Self-Storage,” perhaps?

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