'A Gem That Should Be Saved'

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By Liz Premo, Atlantic News Staff Writer

Atlantic News, Friday, June 23, 2006

[The following article is courtesy of Atlantic News]

HOME SWEET HOME —- Hampton Heritage Commission member Fred Rice and Hampton resident Rick Ascanio are pictured here holding a sample of the dated house plaques that will be made available for purchase through the commission. The plaque, crafted by Old Colony Artisans, was recently displayed at a forum held to discuss the adaptive reuse of the town's former courthouse and grammar school. [Atlantic News Photo by Liz Premo]

HAMPTON -- The Hampton Heritage Commission recently held what Chairman Elizabeth Aykroyd called "a brainstorming session" to discuss "the future of the old court house" (or "the old grammar school") on Winnacunnet Road.

The public forum was held in partial fulfillment of a preservation planning grant through the New Hampshire Preservation Alliance.

Joining Heritage Commission members and an audience in the selectmen's meeting room was John Merkle, who had been asked by the board to serve as a consultant.

An architect by profession, Merkle has a résumé that includes renovations made to the Music Hall and the Wentworth by the Sea Hotel.

The forum opened with an informative slide show, featuring old black and white photographs highlighting the historical and architectural features of the structure, built in 1873.

Over the years it has served as a meeting place for the town, an American Legion hall and a fire station, as well as the grammar school and the courthouse.

"It's still a great architectural work of its time," commented board member Fred Rice, who presented the slide show.

Introducing Merkle, Aykroyd explained that the architect "has crawled all over this building." A four-page set of plans, drawn up by Merkle and made available to all who were present at the forum, reflected "a result of his work," said Aykroyd.

"We've heard a lot of negatives, and I'm hoping to hear a lot of positives [tonight]," Aykroyd added.

Merkle, who measured and assessed the building over the winter months in order to make his assessments, did not disappoint.

"The building is in very fine condition with the exception of cosmetics," he declared. "The outside is essentially intact. [It's] more of a maintenance issue rather than a structural one."

Merkle pointed out that "it's not a large building," and warned that a hose tower added to the rear of the structure when it served as a fire station is "really taking it down [and] not contributing to its well-being at all."

The interior "is up for grabs," Merkle added, pointing out that there is nothing inside the building that has any architectural value, though the building itself does indeed have "real value."

Overall, Merkle deemed the old grammar school worth saving because, as he pointed out, the town of Hampton has so little left of anything that has historical value.

With this assessment established, Aykroyd opened the floor to comments from the public, asking "What do we want to do with this building?" and stressing that "tearing it down is not an option with this commission."

Based on the comments that came forth from those who approached the board, it appeared that a Senior Citizen center would be the prime candidate for adaptive reuse of the old court house.

"I think that this could be a very good place for it," said Academy Avenue resident Russ Merrill, adding he felt the building "is in good, sound condition."

The building's future location was also a consideration. Former Hampton Selectman Glyn Eastman called the current site an "ideal place. Keep it right where it is — whatever you want to call it." As far as it becoming a community center, Eastman said "I think it would be great."

Also addressing the board was Anna DelBuono, a 23-year resident and a member of the Hampton Senior Citizens Club. Though club members regularly utilize space generously set aside for them at the Lane Memorial Library, "we really do need a bigger place," DelBuono said, "and [the court house] seems ideal."

DelBuono went on to suggest that the club would be willing to "help with fundraising" in order to make their dream of a Senior Citizens center come true.

Further discussion on the matter included the need for an elevator to make it accessible to all; moving it forward and raising it up in order to install a basement underneath; moving it to the east side of the uptown fire station for administrative offices; and converting existing floor plans to accommodate a variety of events and activities.

Dialogue was also exchanged regarding the results of a survey that a community center study committee had conducted within the last year and a half. The committee "never got to the planning stage," according to the group's secretary, Liz Webb, adding the notes are "sitting, waiting for the next step." The board requested a summary, if one was available, of those results.

Rice reiterated that "this is something that is very centrally located and will serve a very useful purpose. I love this town and I want to keep places like this."

"We have lost so much," said Aykroyd. "This is one we need to save."

Winnacunnet Road resident Rick Ascanio, whose home was built in the 1800s, told the board that his house "is a treasure — and so is that," he said, pointing to the photo of the court house still projected upon the screen. "Ultimately, we want to be able to drive down Winnacunnet Road and see that building."

Ascanio also suggested the possibility of using part of the building as a "Made in Hampton" retail store, where local craftsmen and other residents could sell their wares. This suggestion seemed to spark a great deal of interest and comment.

The Hampton Heritage Commission will continue to weigh the options and make plans for their next step in preserving Hampton's historic grammar school. What's especially needed is overall support by the town as a whole — a sentiment expressed by board member June Bean.

"I do hope this project is looked upon favorably," she said. "Hopefully the town will realize that this is a gem that should be saved."

Those who would like more information about the Hampton Heritage Commission or the board's efforts to save the court house, call Elizabeth Aykroyd at (603) 926-3536.

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