Upper Square in perspective

Upper Square makes for some delightful shopping. The horse trough in the median is a nod to the past.

 

Central Avenue, while walking from the river toward Upper Square.

 

A glimpse at Fourth Street, one-block long, illustrates the challenge in creating an inviting neighborhood. At the moment, there’s nothing to entice passers-by to turn down the street. The old county courthouse is vacant, and former storefronts are used for storage. At best, it’s a shortcut to the parking lot at the Amtrak station.

 

In contrast, as Fifth Street demonstrates, side streets can add much to a downtown’s usefulness and appeal.

At Fort William and Mary

The small New Castle lighthouse is one of two along the Piscataqua River as it links Portsmouth Harbor to the Atlantic.

This fortification guarding the mouth of the Piscataqua River in New Castle, New Hampshire, has a unique place in American history. It was raided twice by Patriots in 1774, and the gunpowder and cannons captured from the British were later deployed at the Battle of Bunker Hill in Boston. Its small lighthouse is one of two along Portsmouth Harbor.

The panorama view shows the lighthouse in context with fortifications originally built before 1632 and renamed Fort William and Mary around 1692.

Yes, it’s small potatoes in the big scheme of things, but I’m still fascinated

One wing of the new Orpheum overlooks the library, city hall, and St. Thomas Episcopal on Locust Street.

I appreciate your patience as I examine the transformation taking place in my small city. I know this construction and planning would go unnoticed in big metropolises, although these moves could play pivotal roles in anchoring vital neighborhoods and their identities within them.

Actually, that was something I watched happen in Baltimore under Mayor William Donald Schaeffer in the early ’80s, and the results I saw were exciting, especially where I lived in Bolton Hill.

What’s really at stake is quality of life. Pleasing visual variety can be part of that, but healthy urban life and community are a mix of much more, and that’s what I see happening in Dover. The fact I don’t have to get in a car for many things is a delight, though I do drive more than I’d like, mostly for time factors.

In its smaller scale, Dover is a kind of laboratory, one enhanced by a savvy economic development director and city manager. What’s happening now – and about to happen on a site on the other side of the river – is the result of many touches earlier, including the construction of a central parking garage to eliminate some of the lots around downtown. As these seas of parked cars become actual walkways with stores  and services leading to more options, the retail center becomes ever more integrated into its surrounding residential neighborhoods.

Here’s how downtown looks coming up Locust Street from the south. The Greek Orthodox church is tucked in on the left. The new parking garage is straight ahead.
And you turn around and look up at this, the Captain Moses Paul House.

 

Lower Square as the center of town

The old Masonic temple, new Orpheum, and old Strafford County Bank dominate Lower Square, where northbound traffic is peeled off to circle up around the old mills before rejoining Central Avenue. The photo was taken in front of the former newspaper plant, now named Foster Place, and the children’s museum.

It’s been like a downtown waiting to happen, if only the right neighbors moved in.

And now, actually, they are, thanks to the new Orpheum project and what’s happening at the old newspaper plant now dubbed Foster Place.

Historically, some dramatic fires shaped the street, too, removing an imposing city hall that included the largest auditorium in the state (“opera house,” as it was known) and a Baptist church. Mills across the street were also razed over time, making the entire scene airier.

It’s not as alone as it looks here. There’s a former firehouse now serving as a fine restaurant and a parking garage behind it. The new Orpheum diagonally across the street adds some vertical unity along Washington Street.

 

Along with the Cocheco Millworks, this has been the center of town.

 

Like the restaurant renovations I had considered in fiction

A pocket courtyard and stairwell tower now face Central Avenue in what had been unused space where an addition joined the original building. The windows, caps, and doorways are new.

I’ve been watching the renovation of the former newspaper plant downtown with special interest. Remember, I am a retired journalist.

To begin with, the existing edifice was highly problematic, beginning with the question of what to do with the former industrial pressroom and moving on to the way the structure had been expanded wily-nily over the decades. Apart from its first (modest) construction, the evolving building was never exactly what you’d call planned. Not with a long view.

Apartments, many of them overlooking riverfront Henry Law Park, are rising atop what had been the newspaper’s press.
As it was before.

Owned by one family for generations, the daily Foster’s Daily Democrat was headquartered on a prominent corner of Lower Square. In fact, the publisher and his family even lived in quarters in the flat-iron style building where traffic now curves from Central Avenue onto Washington Street and then Main as it winds around the historic mills and river.

The longest side of the plant, though, stands along Henry Law Avenue but has never interacted with it. Nope, it was just a concrete block wall with a few slits. Or fortress, meaning until recently, the street was largely a traffic siphon. But that’s changed now that the children’s museum on the other side draws thousands of families and school groups each year, as do free concerts in the small park. People actually stop and pay to park their vehicles along the street, and not because they have jobs nearby.

Facing the park.

Again, with the city planner’s goal of making downtown both pedestrian- and family-friendly, the interface has been changing.

At last, a developer has realized that to make the old newspaper office viable to new tenants, big changes were needed. And finally, that’s happening. Naturally, it’s a multi-use approach.

This is what’s emerging. The intention, I’d say, is to make the unified structure look like smaller, traditional side-by-side buildings. I do like the recessed balconies overlooking the park and its state-of-the-art destination playground.

 

And, at the far end, this, emphasizing the views.

 

In my novel What’s Left, Cassia’s family members also realize they need to upgrade their restaurant, and that leads to an ambitious project to repurpose the building next door. It’s not that unlike what’s happening on Henry Law Avenue as the blank concrete block wall is opened to pedestrian traffic.

What do you think?

 

Filling in a modest skyline

What would otherwise be the rear, on the south, instead projects its own grandeur as it fronts on the lawns of the community center and public library. The blank brick wall on the right is the side of the old Masonic temple. 

Fitting the new Orpheum into an essentially triangular site made for an interesting design challenge. Fitting into an existing downtown look and scale of size was another. And optimizing return on investment and budget was a third.

The footprint led to an interesting solution as well as an emerging new skyline.

The developer’s results look like two parallel buildings when seen from the west, as well as a long backdrop for the existing downtown when seen from the east.

And this is before the landscaping kicks in.

From the front, facing north, varied textures suggest narrower side-by-side buildings rather than a single monolith. I find it rather busy, but maybe that was the intention.

 

From the bank drive-thru, two new buildings seem to be rising. The existing city hall sits to the right, and then the new district courthouse. 

 

Another look from the bank drive-thru.

 

Sitting back a block from Central Avenue, the new Orpheum adds depth to an urban view.

Let’s not get nostalgic

The quirky arch inspired the name of the new project as well as a design element retained in the new, larger structure.

I’ve been posting images and commentary on the big changes taking place in my small city’s downtown. The biggest project is the new Orpheum, replacing a storefront block and taking its name from a tiny movie house that once occupied one corner.

This is what occupied most of the site.
And this.

Celia’s garden and grave out on Appledore Island

The garden today tries to be faithful to the original. The railing is where the cottage porch once stood.

Celia Thaxter (1835-1894) is an intriguing character in New England history. An important figure in New England poetry, she was also a pioneering hotelier, flower gardener, and catalyst in the fine arts.

Celia in her garden, 1899

While turning her family’s hotel on Appledore Island in the Atlantic into what was probably the leading summer resort in the Northeast, she also created a famed artists’ colony with salon events featuring a who’s who of America’s leading artists, poets, novelists, and painters. There were likely more, including actors and dancers.

With its 95 acres, Appledore is the largest of the nine islands that comprise the Isles of Shoals about nine miles off the coast of Maine and New Hampshire. It was known as Hog Island until Celia’s family decided to build the hotel and turned to an earlier name for the shoals, one drawn from the Old English word for apple tree. How romantic.

The shoals also include tidal ledges.

Celia’s flower garden in front of her cottage became legendary, celebrated in her lovely book An Island Garden, with glorious illustrations by Impressionist master Childe Hassam. I treasure my reproduction copy. She’s the one who convinced Hassam to use his middle name rather than Frederick as an artist.

The hotel itself burned in 1914, and today the island is privately owned, much of it by the Shoals Marine Laboratory run by the University of New Hampshire and Cornell University. Visits are strictly controlled.

Today Appledore Island is the home of the Shoals Marine Laboratory. The tower was a bunker used to watch for German submarines approaching Portsmouth Harbor during World War II. The hotel sat in the open space from 1847 to 1914. A corner of her resurrected garden is at the lower left.

Last summer, my wife and elder daughter and I indulged in a tour of the island. Among its highlights was walking through the grounds of the long-gone hotel and a replication of Celia’s garden, which is much smaller than we’d expected and less carefully tended. The fact that it needed such constant care is a lesson in humility for those of us who expect similar results on much larger tracts.

And, for those of you who have read the garden book, I’m told that garden slugs are no longer a problem.

Nearby is her grave.

Celia is buried with her parents and siblings on the island.