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Charlestown Main Street Historic District

Charlestown Town, Sullivan County, NH

The Charlestown Main Street Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1987. Portions of the content of this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [‡]


The Charlestown Main Street Historic District consists of the section of Main Street along which the town center of Charlestown developed and thrived beginning in the late 18th century.

With the exception of the School and Olcott property buildings which rise from a low cleared hill at the southern part of the districts, most of the buildings are set on relatively flat lots. Standard highway style cobra head lights mounted either on aluminum poles or telephone poles dot the street, with crisscrossing electrical wires overhead. Concrete or asphalt sidewalks line most of the street. Conversion of structures for commercial use has eradicated both sidewalks and lawns in some areas, most notably in the northern part of the district, leaving several buildings on the east side islands surrounded by asphalt parking, with little or no separation or definition between these buildings and the street. The advent of the automobile resulted in angled parking spots in front of some commercial structures and service stations digesting several street corners. Sidewalks on the west side of Main Street are continuous and are set back approximately 15 feet from the roadway. Elm trees which once lined Main Street have all but disappeared, destroyed by Dutch Elm disease and the desire for additional parking on the east side of the street. In recent years, over forty trees have been planted along the length of Main Street to try to fill this void. They include lindens, flowering crabs, red oaks and gingkos. Buildings in the southern part of the district retain their residential nature and are set back from the road with more generous lawns and substantial trees. A series of 19th century fences survive at the front of properties on the west side of the street in this area. Granite hitching posts of two varieties can be seen throughout the district and include simple rectangular posts and a later style (c.1870) displaying chamfered corners and bulbous caps. Historic photographs indicate that simple carriage lights on posts once illuminated Charlestown's Main Street.

The streetscape of Charlestown's town center combines residential, civic, commercial, and religious structures with styles ranging from Federal and Greek Revival to the eclectic modes of the 19th century and the automobile-inspired of the twentieth. At least ten buildings in the district predate 1800 though in several cases early features have been obscured by later additions and alterations or as was common, construction of a more elaborate main house, using the original structure as an ell. Periods of heightened building activity include the decade following 1800 and the 1830's; eight buildings in the district date to each of these periods. Frame, stone and brick structures are all represented within the district. Only seven buildings in the district have been constructed since 1940. Beginning in the 1930s and 1940s, a few Main Street structures were covered in synthetic sidings in the name of modernization, lending only a sense of disrepair to these structures today.


It was not until about 1753 as the threat of Indian attack appeared to subside that settlers began to prepare homes on the lots along what is now Main Street, still in close proximity to the fort and despite the fact that Indian attacks continued until 1760. The structure historically known as the Johnson House reportedly integrates part of the original log cabin from which the Johnson family was taken captive by Indians in 1754 and taken to Canada. Main Street itself was laid out in 1763. Summer Street, predating Main Street by almost 20 years, gained early importance as the road leading to the mill. At least ten buildings in the district predate 1800 though in several cases early features have been obscured by later additions, alterations or as was common, construction of a later, more elaborate main house using the original structure as an ell. The measurements of several of these buildings correspond nearly exactly to the prescribed sizes of houses as dictated by the Province government and were thus commonly called "Province Houses."

One of the oldest surviving structures on Main Street is the brick North Primary School constructed in 1772 but functioning as a dwelling since 1894. St. Luke's Rectory dates to 1776 and is Georgian in style, distinguished by elaborate first floor window lintels, a classic central entrance and transomed side entrance. Less elaborate and more indicative of the simple structures erected by many early settlers is the Moses Willard House, located at the southeast corner of Elm and Main Streets, built sometime before 1800.

During this early period the Olcott House, constructed in 1774 with later alterations, was undoubtedly the showcase of Charlestown. Consisting of a central block flanked by a pediment end ell on each side, the building is decorated by high Georgian detailing including quoining, a swan's neck pediment, full entablature lintels and a hip roof.

Most of the buildings lining Main Street today date to the 19th century. Periods of heightened building activity include the decade following 1800 and the 1830's. As in many downtown areas, fire loss has had an important role in the evolution of Main Street. In 1842, a fire set by a prisoner in the jail swept away everything from Depot Street south to and including the Meeting House which previously stood on the site of the South Parish Church. Concurrent with this period of accelerated building activity in Charlestown was the flourishing of the Federal, Greek Revival and Gothic styles. Local master builder Stephen Hassam (1761-1861) appears to have acted as one of the primary vehicles for transporting all of these styles to Charlestown and is responsible for the delicate woodcarving adorning many Charlestown buildings. Born in Boston in 1761, Hassam spent his early years as an apprentice to a clockmaker in Worchester, Massachusetts. By 1778 he was in Charlestown, the earliest structures by his hand reportedly date to 1800. An exact source for Hassam's architectural training is not known though he was clearly heavily influenced by the architectural guides of Asher Benjamin and his contemporaries. Buildings within the district attributed to Hassam include the old Connecticut River Bank, South Parish Unitarian Church, and numerous private residences.

Perhaps the style most in evidence in the survey area is the Federal style, popular between 1800 and 1830, with both residential and commercial examples surviving. A fine example of the basic house type, two stories tall, set broadside to the street with a five bay facade, hip roof, elaborate fan-lit entrance and delicate classical details is the Hall House at 61 Main Street. Of similar massing in brick is the Vryling Lovell House which is distinguished by an eaves balustrade and end parapet walls with four exterior brick chimneys, a roof treatment seldom seen in the area. Also of special note is the home of local builder Stephen Hassam, constructed by him c. 1800 at 37 Main Street. In terms of commercial structures, Rick's Electric constructed in 1806 at 72 Main Street and the former Connecticut River Bank stand out as excellent federal examples conceived in brick, with typical recessed arches rising the height of the structure, a lunette shaped attic opening in the former and a fan-lit entrance in the latter.

The advent of the Greek Revival style in Charlestown and elsewhere in the period prior to the Civil War gave rise to gable-fronted structures replacing earlier broadsided buildings. The Sumner House, transitional in style, is notable for combining delicate Federal detailing with the latest Greek Revival inspired gable front and sidehall floor plan. The finest Greek Revival structure in the district is undoubtedly the Holton House with its distinctive semicircular recessed porch on the second floor of the gable front, supported by fluted Ionic columns. The former "Bakery Block"/Post Office, constructed in 1842 is a fine example of the Greek Revival style adapted for commercial purposes. Brick pilaster strips support a simple frieze and pediment ends, meant to evoke a simplified version of the Grecian temple front. The Walker House at 101 Main Street combines some Greek Revival details with handsome stone construction.

The Gothic Revival style, popular from about 1840 to 1890 is well represented by two churches in the district. The brick South Parish Unitarian Church, constructed in 1842 and attributed to local builder Stephen Hassam, is distinguished by delicate wooden tracery around the doorway and elaborate belfry. St. Luke's Episcopal Church, constructed in 1863 and sheathed in board and batten siding is typical of the small country churches popularized by its architect, Richard Upjohn in a widely circulated handbook Upjohn's Rural Architecture. Upjohn (1802-1878) was a prominent New York ecclesiastical architect and Charlestown is privileged to have his only wooden church in the State. It is interesting to note that the church was enlarged in 1869 by his son, moving the nave back 22 feet and building the transepts, tower and steeple. An ambitious project, all the more remarkable for being completed at the end of the Civil War.

Railroad activity added a new dimension to Charlestown in the mid 19th century. There were few roads laid out west of Main Street until after the advent of the railroad in 1848. Railway and Depot Street were laid out in 1853, while Elm Street dates to 1858.

Following a period of building inactivity coinciding with the Civil War, the 1870's and 1880's saw renewed construction in the district. This period is characterized by an increasing range of architectural styles as builders and architects sought to break from accepted classical forms. The construction of the Town Hall between 1872 and 1873 furnished a new focal point for the Town Center. Stylistically, the structure is a fine, though simplified, example of the Italianate Style (popular 1840-1880) with rusticated brick pilasters and segmented brick lintels which drape over the double arched windows like eyebrows. It was designed by prominent N.H. architect Edward Dow (1820-1894) who grew up in Newport before opening a practice in Concord and designed a town hall for Newport during the same period (destroyed by fire). Chamfered porch posts and brackets, other earmarks of the style appear on many structures in the Town Center and also suggest an Italianate influence.

The French Second Empire style existed concurrently with the Italianate style and often exhibits many similar features, the mansard roof being the foremost distinguishing characteristic. A fine example of this style can be seen in the carriage house "at the Olcott House, a small mansarded frame building decorated by quoins and segmental arch dormer windows.

The general label Queen Anne style can be broadly applied to many late 19th century buildings and is characterized by irregular, asymmetrical facades, adorned by a variety of patterns, colors and projections. The Bond House, elaborated by bay windows, porches and a three story ogee-roofed tower is a good example of the possibilities inherent in this style. A product of this same era, the Stick Style is characterized by the use of clapboards with overlays of vertical, horizontal and diagonal boards meant to evoke the structural frame beneath. St. Catherine's Church is an excellent example of this style and is also noteworthy for the Tiffany windows contained within. The fanciful carriage house at the rear is unique in the district for its Eastlake style detailing, geometric with naturalistic overtones. The Hunt House and virtually identical Labaree House also display some stick detailing.

The Silsby Free Library constructed in 1893-4 represents an important expression of local prosperity and confidence, funded by the will of Col. Ithiel Silsby of Acworth. It is typical of many late 19th century libraries across the country, inspired by the work of Boston architect, H.H. Richardson. As seen in the library, this style known as Richardsonian Romanesque, typically incorporates an asymmetrical profile, contrast between brick and sandstone trimmings, semicircular arched openings and transomed windows. The library was designed by architect C.C. McAlpine of Boston who published his drawings of the building in American Architect and Building News in 1893.

The prevailing vogue for classical forms in the first decades of the 20th century is perhaps best summarized within Charlestown by the unique classically-inspired detailing of Nourse's Pharmacy, built in 1924 and whimsically displaying a cornice, columns, and brightly painted cornucopia in its pediment front. In the 20th century Main Street was transformed by concrete and asphalt paving. In 1907 kerosene lamps which had lit the street since 1875 were replaced with electric lights. Sidewalks in the village date to 1912-1913. An important Charlestown landmark, the Eagle Hotel, constructed in the early 19th century, was destroyed by fire in 1904, its site vacant until the construction of a filling station in 1951. Beginning in 1914 the town appropriated funds for the preservation, renewal and care of the trees in the village although the dense trees once lining the street have all but disappeared, doomed by the effects of winter road salting and Dutch Elm Disease. The advent of the automobile resulted in service stations that weakened the axial effect of Main Street as well as the construction of Bowen's Garage. Beginning in the 1930's and 40's many Main Street structures were covered in synthetic sidings in the name of modernization, lending only a sense of disrepair to the streetscape today. Electric clocks and neon signs, representing the latest in advertising rivalled the attention of the shopper during this era and survive today on the Charlestown Inn and Rick's Electric. During World War II almost every house on Main Street was converted into apartments to house defense workers of the machine tool industry. Some were badly mutilated yet many have been beautifully restored.

Recent years have witnessed further changes in the downtown, accompanied by growing awareness of Charlestown's historic resources. The addition to Silsby Library erected in 1977 respects and echoes the detailing of the original structure, including repetition of rock-faced belt courses. The Town Hall is undergoing a long term rehabilitation of which a major portion was completed in 1981. The building was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1984, the only structure in town thus far to have achieved this distinction. Several private rehabilitations have also occurred in recent years. New construction over the past decades includes the High School in 1950, and the Post office and Bank in 1967, all in a "colonial" mode.

Charlestown is fortunate in the wealth of historical resources it retains. While the architectural integrity of some buildings has been compromised by the addition of incompatible design features such as aluminum doors and windows, synthetic sidings, or simple lack of maintenance, these alterations have not been so extensive as to threaten the integrity of the district as a whole.

Properly treated and maintained the historic structures of Charlestown contain tremendous benefit for economic and cultural benefit. Often taken for granted by those who have grown accustomed to its appearance, Main Street presents a strong and attractive historical image to tourists and others passing through town. A unique collection of architectural gems, spanning over two hundred years, Charlestown's Main Street merits inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.

‡ Lisa Mausolf, Historic Preservation Specialist, Upper Valley-Lake Sunapee Council, Charlestown Main Street Historic District, Sullivan County, New Hampshire, nomination document, 1986, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.

Street Names
Main Street • Route 12A

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