Everyone loves a makeover and few makeovers are more noticeable than that of the historical Oscar Brown Block that Trumbull-Nelson Construction Company has been renovating in the heart of downtown Claremont, New Hampshire.
This $2.5 million project is one of several large construction projects considered "key" to the revitalization of Claremont. Given its location at the corner of Pleasant Street and Opera House Square, it is certainly one of the most prominent ones.
The project, scheduled for completion this spring, stands at the corner of “what would be called the most lively commercial intersection in Claremont. The location has always been parade central, so to speak,” said architect Rick Monahon of Richard A. Monahon, AIA, Architects in Peterborough, New Hampshire.
When finished, the Oscar Brown Block will provide commercial space for several small businesses, including a barbershop, and six spacious apartments, as well as a relocated and expanded Sophie & Zeke’s Restaurant, a popular and growing eatery in Claremont’s downtown.
“This is very much in keeping with what we hoped for the revitalization of the downtown,” said Nancy Merrill, business development coordinator with the Claremont Economic Development Office.
The project is essentially a complete renovation of a mid-nineteenth century commercial block, built in the late 1860s or early 1870s. Oscar Brown, a Claremont entrepreneur and stagecoach driver, developed the block as a commercial center, even tacking his house onto the end where the new parking lot will be located. “Brown was quite well known for driving stages to neighboring towns for many years,” said Monahon.
The block remained a thriving center as late as the 1950s when historic photos show bunting hanging from all the windows and active storefronts. “The apartments were considered quite prestigious, and this was considered to be the center of town in the 1950s. There was no strip mall outside of town. Back then, this was the commercial center,” said Monahon.
Main Street Claremont, a non-profit volunteer organization that is part of the state Main Street Program to rebuild commercial centers, chose to use the Oscar Brown Block as a demonstration project in revitalizing the downtown. At the time of its purchase, the building had dramatically declined to almost slum-like conditions. Although some commercial tenants remained, the building had deteriorated to the point that pigeons inhabited the upstairs, windows were broken, and it was in a general state of disrepair.
Main Street Claremont no doubt recognized the importance of this facility when it decided to purchase it. “From our point of view it sits right in the middle of the City center. There is no more visible structure when you come into the City and go around that circle than the Opera House and the Brown Block,” said Merrill.
The project, however, was very large in scope. “In fact,” said Merrill, “there have only been three new market tax credit projects in the state of New Hampshire and the first one was the Brown Block. It is a very complicated structure.”
Realizing the scale of the project and its complexity, Main Street Claremont eventually chose to sell the property to Jack Dugan of Monadnock Economic Development.
“Both the city of Claremont and Main Street Claremont were happy to see Jack take on this project and see it to completion,” said Merrill.
Funding sources included the New Hampshire Business Finance Authority, New Hampshire Community Development Finance Authority, New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority, Claremont Economic Development Authority, and Sovereign Bank.
Brown Block Construction
Because of the complexity of the overall project, the design and preconstruction phase had been going on for several years. In early April 2007, Trumbull-Nelson Construction Company was awarded the bid to start demolition and construction. While Trumbull-Nelson has done a fair amount of the work itself both in terms of demolition and rough and finished carpentry, Economy Plumbing and Heating and AMER Electric from Keene have also worked on the project.
“Trumbull-Nelson was uniquely qualified to work with our architect, Rick Monahon, to provide creative present–day solutions needed to overcome obstacles to renovating this historic property. We are very proud of the historically accurate new look of the Brown Block,” said Dugan.
One of the challenges in working on the 11,000-square-foot building, consisting of two floors of roughly 5,500 square feet, was the fact that the building had been built and reconstructed over numerous periods. Originally, for example, the façades of the building all faced what was then Tremont Square (now Opera House Square). Later, at what must have been an enormous expense, the owners decided that the better commercial street was Pleasant Street, so they removed the brick dividing walls between each of the stores and put in huge beams to hold the brick walls and the upper floors above, reorienting all the store fronts to Pleasant Street. In some ways, the current project benefited from this as there were “no bearing walls and lots of big steel beams that worked with the restaurant’s open plan,” said Monahon.
Retaining the historic look of the building posed some challenges. The Oscar Brown Building was essentially a brick and glass structure, with much of the building in “very bad shape,” said Joe Schoenig, project manager for Trumbull-Nelson Construction Company. Many of the bricks had to be totally replaced and it was difficult to find new bricks to match the originals. Another feature that needed to be duplicated was the granite slabs underneath the windows. Before this could be done, the surface of the building also needed to be cleaned to bring it back to an approximation of its original color and appearance. Not only did the original bricks need to be replicated, but the mortar in between also needed to match. Trumbull-Nelson replaced large areas of glass with a new thermo-pane glass for energy savings.
Another challenge was the fact that two of the portions of the building were not part of the original structure, but instead were commercial infill stores that had their own Art Deco appearance. “They are very different as they were built at a different time,” said Monahon.
The barbershop will be located in one of these Art Deco storefronts that had been renovated in the 1930s. The façade on this section of the building was unique, consisting of “very high-grade, porcelain-enameled, painted panels,” said Schoenig. “Fortunately, we found some historic pictures of them,” he said.
Trumbull-Nelson ended up having the panels reproduced by a company in Tennessee. “We sent them the remaining panels in the hopes of repairing them, but they felt they couldn’t guarantee that there would be no further damage in the process, so we elected to duplicate what was there. It really dresses up the building,” Schoenig said. These panels are located on the Pleasant Street portion of the building.
Another historic element that was replicated was the cornice of the building. “The original cornice was a fairly dramatic overhang of wood with large brackets holding it up. The old photographs show it very clearly,” said Monahon. Over the years, this had rotted and ripped off and what remained was a brick façade that went up, stopping three feet short of the cornice with asphalt shingles pasted across for temporary waterproofing.
“It had been like that for forty to fifty years,” said Monahon. To rectify that, a new fiberglass cornice that resembles the original wood cornice has been installed. “It creates a dramatic aspect to the façade,” he noted.
The Brown Block Today
Sophie & Zeke’s, a restaurant that opened in Claremont two years ago, is eager to relocate to its new space. The move will allow them to expand their services and offer more meeting space as well as a take-out location. On weekends, Sophie & Zeke’s offers music and has had to turn as many as thirty to forty people away on occasion. Owners Reid and Danna Hannula are looking forward to having additional space to meet their expanding customer base.
The upstairs apartments are spacious with very high ceilings of ten to twelve feet. They have tall windows that allow in a lot of light “and really accentuate the volume of space that’s there,” said Schoenig. “These are really great looking apartments.
“We are really excited to see this project come to completion,” said Merrill.
“It adds to the revitalization of the downtown. From Trumbull-Nelson’s standpoint as a company that has been around for ninety years, we take a great deal of pride in the projects that we do. On a personal level I’ve done a lot of historical preservation work in the past and love getting into old buildings and turning them back into what they were,” concluded Schoenig.