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Sanbornton Square Historic District

Sanbornton Town, Belknap County, NH

The Sanbornton Square Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [‡]


The Sanbornton Square Historic District (also known as Sanbornton Historic District) is located at Sanbornton Square, near the geographical center of the original land area of the township of Sanbornton, New Hampshire. The National Register Historic District coincides with a local historic district established in 1977. The Sanbornton Square Historic District extends north and south along the central range road of the town, and also includes buildings and sites on a number of east-west roads that converge in this part of town. The terrain within the Sanbornton Square Historic District is gently rolling, with good agricultural soils that formerly provided extensive pasturage and tillage and made Sanbornton one of the most productive farming towns in New Hampshire during the early nineteenth century. Much of the land near the Square remains unforested and under cultivation, and the area now supports several small vineyards. Because of the nature of its original community planning in the mid-eighteenth century, Sanbornton remains a township with dispersed independent farms. A sizable village that later developed due to the availability of water power for mills was set off, along with some 10,000 acres, as the town of Tilton in 1869. This division left the remaining portion of Sanbornton, in which the historic district lies, relatively undisturbed in its rural economy. For this reason, the density of population in Sanbornton presently stands at about .07 persons per acre or 47 persons per square mile. The Sanbornton Square Historic District, though the most populous village in the present township, contains only about 45 buildings.

The architecture of the Sanbornton Square Historic District is predominantly early nineteenth century in date and Federal or Greek Revival in style. With the exception of two or three modern concrete block structures, all buildings in the Sanbornton Square Historic District are of wood-frame construction, and most of the dwellings are covered with clapboards. The scale of all structures is small; the largest domestic-type building is the Lane Tavern (ca.1810) [520 Sanborn Road, Route 132; Sanbornton Historical Society], while the largest non-domestic structures are the Woodman-Sanborn Academy (ca.1825) [27 Meeting House Hill Road; Sanbornton Public Library], a two-story structure with a three-stage tower in the front of its roof; the Sanbornton Congregational Church (ca.1834) [21 Meeting House Hill Road], a one-story building with a two-stage belfry; and the Sanbornton Town Hall (ca.1834) [573 Sanborn Road], a one-story structure with a low square tower. In addition to the houses and public structures in the Sanbornton Square Historic District which date before the Civil War, there are approximately ten dwellings of more recent date; all of these, with the exception of one post-and-beam dwelling having stone and glass walls, are compatible in style and materials with the clapboarded wood-frame dwellings of the earlier era.

The buildings in the Sanbornton Historic District are clustered near Sanbornton Square. Some extend along the original north-south central range road of the township, while others are spaced along crossroads that converge at the Square. Most buildings are set back from the roads with generous front yards and adjoining fields behind, and most have attached sheds and barns that relate to the agricultural economy that predominated in Sanbornton when the dwellings were built. The combination of large front yards, adjoining fields, and a generally unforested terrain creates an open feeling throughout the district even though Sanbornton Square has only a small public area in front of the academy, Congregational Church and town hall. Despite its name, the Square never possessed a large town green or common.

Sanbornton Square achieved its major importance within the township during the 1820s. At that period, before the manufacturing villages of Franklin, NH (incorporated 1828) and Tilton, NH (incorporated 1869) were set off with their adjoining territories as separate towns, Sanbornton attained a population of 3,300 (1820), and the Square formed the administrative center of the township. After Sanbornton was partitioned in 1869 and the southern part of the township was set off as Tilton, the square remained the administrative center of the reduced township of Sanbornton. Most economic activity in the area migrated to Tilton, however, and Sanbornton Square served only a relatively depopulated territory. The inhabitants of Sanbornton declined from 1,200 in 1870 to about 600 in 1920. Today they have increased to 1,800, but the architecture of the Sanbornton Square Historic District is predominantly that of the period before the township was divided and in fact strongly reflects the period of the 1820s, when the town's population was greatest.

Most of the structures in the Sanbornton Square Historic District are residential. Apart from houses, the Sanbornton Square Historic District contains one former academy building (now a town library), one church, one town hall, two former taverns (one now a historical society headquarters), two former stores, one modern elementary school, one bandstand, one stone town pound, one former blacksmith shop, and one modern fire station. All buildings in the Sanbornton Square Historic District are in good condition except for one structure (John Lord House) which was recently [1980] partly damaged by fire. A number of the structures (notably the Lane Tavern) have undergone restoration.

The Sanbornton Square Historic District is distinctive from its surroundings in that it is the only village of substantial size within a township that is otherwise characterized by separate farms or by very small hamlets. It was originally the center of the township, and for over 200 years has been the seat of government and, to a considerable extent, the focus of trade.

Because the Sanbornton Square Historic District has been the focus of the community since the mid-eighteenth century, and because a number of structures that once stood in the area have since disappeared, the archaeological potential of the area is high. Among other sites, the Sanbornton Square Historic District includes the location of the original 1770 meeting house (removed ca.1834) and the original burying ground. The Rev. M.T. Runnels, in his History of Sanbornton, New Hampshire (1882) lists many former activities in Sanbornton Square which would have left archaeological remains, including several stores, potash manufactories, blacksmiths' and tinsmiths' shops, coopers' and joiners' shops, distilleries, printing and bookbinding offices, harness and saddlers' shops, and a slaughter house. Runnels remarked, "it thus appears that...[in] the Square village, where now the only place of business is a single blacksmith's shop, there have been in former generations, within the distance of one and a half miles, from north to south, no less than four different situations where hotels or public houses have been kept, at least six places where trading stores have been maintained, and some of them quite extensive; four sites of blacksmith shops, including the one now occupied; four of hat shops, three of saddler and harness shops, two of printing establishments, together with a proportionable amount of other branches of business which were common in those times, and could be carried out without the aid of water power...A careful enumeration of the dwelling houses and other buildings, not including barns and outhouses standing at present within the territory of Sanbornton Square, as above bounded, makes a sum total of thirty-eight; but within the same space...there have been in the past, thirty other buildings, at least, whose sites are now vacant, or are occupied (in a few cases) by buildings entirely dissimilar."[1]


The Sanbornton Square Historic District is the original center of the township of Sanbornton, New Hampshire. Sanbornton was granted in 1748 by a group of private investors who had purchased an extensive tract of land in central New Hampshire. It was chartered in 1770 by the New Hampshire government. The buildings in the Sanbornton Square Historic District are characteristic of those of central New Hampshire in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and include both public and private structures. Some buildings are especially notable in a New Hampshire context, particularly the Lane Tavern (ca.1810), the Woodman-Sanborn Academy (ca.1825), and the Congregational Church (ca.1834). The Sanbornton Square Historic District has further importance as the original geographical, political, social and religious center of a township which was the first among some 35 to be granted by the Masonian Proprietors. The Masonian townships were planned as tracts composed of many separate and uniform farmsteads, and departed from New England tradition in not being planned with a strong nucleus or village. Such villages as Sanbornton Square (which comprises the Sanbornton Historic District) thus developed in response to social need rather than as part of a preordained plan; the Square is an important reflection of community life in eighteenth and early nineteenth-century New Hampshire.


The buildings of the Sanbornton Square Historic District represent the evolution of a village center in a rural New Hampshire township. This center achieved its greatest population and importance in the 1820s, and the structures that remain in the district strongly reflect the late Federal style of that era as well as earlier and later architectural fashions. The buildings in the Sanbornton Square Historic District typify the architectural and social ideals that prevailed in rural New Hampshire during the early nineteenth century: besides a number of houses with attached barns and outbuildings, the district includes a town hall, an academy building, a church, former taverns, a bandstand, and a stone pound for detaining stray animals.

Many of the buildings in the Sanbornton Square Historic District reflect the skills of Sanbornton's early nineteenth century craftsmen, who flourished when the town was one of the most prosperous in central New Hampshire. Records indicate that Sanbornton supported at least fourteen joiners and cabinetmakers before 1825. One of these was John Johnson (1741-1825), who came to town from Epping, NH, in 1775. Johnson was active as a joiner in town throughout the remainder of his life, and almost certainly trained his son Bradbury in the same craft. Bradbury Johnson (1766-1820) grew up in Sanbornton and later worked as a prominent builder-architect in Exeter and Portsmouth, NH; Saco, Maine; and New York City. Another builder-architect from Sanbornton was William Durgin (1750-1822), who planned and built several churches and many other buildings in Sanbornton and in different parts of New Hampshire during the early 1800s.

The buildings that these men and others like them constructed in Sanbornton are typical rural interpretations of the Federal style. A number of the houses have doorways, louvered gable fans and interior and exterior trim that reflect this style. Notable among Sanbornton Square's non-domestic structures in the Federal style is the Woodman-Sanborn Academy building (ca.1825), which has a beautifully-proportioned three-stage bell tower capped by an octagonal lantern and dome. Another building with characteristic Federal interior and exterior detailing is the Lane Tavern (ca.1810), now the headquarters of the Sanbornton Historical Society. The Tavern has a fine Federal front doorway with fanlight and sidelights, and a louvered Gothic fan over the central gable window. Its interior trim embodies the refinement and delicacy associated with the style.

The Sanbornton Town Hall and Congregational Church reflect the evolution of the Federal style into later romantic revival styles; they are among the best buildings of their eclectic type in the upper Merrimack Valley of New Hampshire. Both combine detailing derived from the Federal style with basic plans that reflect the Greek Revival and with detailing that is strongly Gothic.

Other buildings in Sanbornton Square derive from later styles. Several houses show Greek Revival and Italianate influence. The bandstand reflects the general feeling of the Stick style. The eighteenth-century Chace Taylor House, remodelled in the nineteenth century as the studio of local portrait painter Walter Ingalls, was eventually transformed into an interesting example of the Shingle style. Most of the relatively few twentieth-century houses within the Sanbornton Square Historic District are Colonial Revival in style and thus blend sympathetically with the older buildings at the Square. The good state of repair in which the structures of the Square are maintained further contributes to the coherence of the Sanbornton Square Historic District, as does the restoration of several buildings carried out in recent years by several private owners and by the Sanbornton Historical Society. The latter has been engaged since 1968 in returning the Lane Tavern to its condition and appearance of the early nineteenth century. The few architectural intrusions in the Sanbornton Square Historic District, notably a concrete block fire station and a concrete block school bus building, have relatively minor impact on the overall integrity of the area.

Community Planning

Sanbornton Square is an outgrowth of a concept of town planning that developed in New Hampshire between 1720 and 1750 and became standardized in land grants made after 1748 by a group of private landowners whose speculative enterprise was centered in Portsmouth, the provincial capital. In 1746 these men, known as the Masonian Proprietors, purchased the proprietary claim to New Hampshire lands that had descended to the heirs of Capt. John Mason, the original grantee of New Hampshire in the early seventeenth century. Mason's heirs claimed ownership of all lands in New Hampshire within an arc drawn with a radius of 60 miles from the sea. This huge tract embraced some 200,000 acres and included the territory that would shortly become Sanbornton.

The Masonian Proprietors began to grant townships within this territory in December, 1748, having already received a petition from 60 men for the grant that would become Sanbornton. This grant, confirmed in Portsmouth on December 31, 1748, was the first township grant made by the Masonian Proprietors. It set a precedent in planning for most of the subsequent townships (of which there were some 35) granted by these men.

In the Masonian townships, square or rectangular lots of perfectly regular size were laid out in straight rows or "ranges," separated from adjacent ranges by "range roads." No provision was made for a village, although a general desire among settlers for a central place in which to conduct public business and trade usually resulted in the eventual development of one or more village centers in each Masonian township. Lots averaged 100 acres in size and grantees of a township, like those in Sanbornton, often received two such lots in different parts of the grant. To encourage the speedy development of each township and to permit it to qualify eventually for a town charter (Sanbornton's charter was granted in 1770), the Masonian Proprietors required that each grantee build a small house within a year on one of his lots, that a meeting house be built, and that a minister be settled. In keeping with the impartiality and regularity that characterized Masonian town plans, one of the "ministerial lots" in each township was typically placed at or near the geographical center and a six- or ten-acre plot was carved out of this for a meeting house, burying ground, training field and other "public" uses. This provision was the origin of Sanbornton Square.

The Square was originally laid out very close to the geographical center of the township, but was moved some distance to the west in order to place it on better terrain. Here the town's first meeting house was built in 1775, with a burying ground adjacent. These improvements, providing a focus for community life, encouraged the construction of a number of dwellings nearby; eventually the present Sanbornton Square developed along the range road which extends southward from the old meeting house site. While the original meeting house no longer exists, having been replaced by a more modern Congregational Church and town hall (both ca.1834), the town's first burying ground remains and constitutes the northernmost feature of the Sanbornton Square Historic District.

Although the village of Sanbornton Square grew up around the old meeting house and served as a central place for town affairs and business, it was not a preordained nucleus of the type associated with seventeenth century New England communities. Rather, the Square represents a point close to the geographical center of the original territory granted by the Masonian Proprietors as Sanbornton. As a logical and accessible focus for community functions in a township made up of separate farmsteads arranged along a grid of range roads, the Square remained small yet performed an important role in the life of the country town. The availability of water power elsewhere in Sanbornton eventually resulted in industrial development, urbanization, and finally the splitting-off of other communities from the original territory of Sanbornton. This process left Sanbornton Square as a relatively unchanged town center characteristic of most Masonian townships in New Hampshire, The survival of the Square in Sanbornton, the first of the Masonian townships, renders the Sanbornton Square Historic District an especially important document of community planning in the state.

Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of the Sanbornton Square Historic District is the integrity of its setting. The cross roads area is surrounded by open fields and woodland down around it. The Sanbornton Square Historic District boundaries are drawn at the visual edged of the area, articulated by wooded hilltops. This comprises a well-defined visual entity which is coextensive with the extent of the historical settlement area of Sanbornton Square.


  1. M.T. Runnels, History of Sanbornton, New Hampshire, pp.227-8.


Cahn, Elizabeth. "Architectural Survey of Sanbornton, New Hampshire." August, 1977.

Coombs, Mildred L. Houses of Sanbornton Square.

Patten, Helen Philbrook. "Clement Durgin," The Granite Monthly 36, No.5 (May, 1904).

Runnels, M.T. History of Sanbornton, New Hampshire. 2 vols. Boston: Alfred Mudge & Son, 1882.

Sanbornton, New Hampshire, Town of. Zoning Ordinance, May, 1977, p.30.

Work Projects Administration. Hands That Built New Hampshire, Brattleboro, Vt., Daye, 1940.

‡ Mildred Coombs, Sanbornton Historic District Commission, Sanbornton Square Historic District, nomination document, 1978, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.

Street Names
Gulf Road • Hunkins Pound Road • Meeting House Road • Mims Lane • Perkins Road • Pound Road • Route 132 • Sanborn Road • Tower Hill Road