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BOSTON GLOBE SUNDAY MAGAZINE, March 9, 1969

Click on pages to enlarge.

 

LOST CITY ON THE MERRIMACK

 

One of the world's most historic but least known

urban areas is now being destroyed

in Manchester, N.H.,

in the name of Urban Renewal.

By Randolph Langenbach

 

We are the executors to the estate of mankind.

Each individual comes into the world a new being,

We are responsible for the scope of his future experience,

We leave with him the record of our own experience,

and we pass on to him that of our ancestors, which has provided the context for our lives,

and our knowledge of which has given depth to our thoughts.

When we destroy an important part of that record without adding to it in a positive and creative way,

we needlessly limit the scope of our own lives and the lives of all people to come.

                  

IT is frequently said that America has never known how to design cities. The painful evidence that this is true surrounds us from coast to coast, but those who look at the chaotic cities of today and dream of a new kind of order - "Megastructures" to fit megaproblems - should take note of one area, where urban design did take place on a level of competence unmatched by any other place in the nation and few places in the world - an area which is now being destroyed in an ill-conceived urban renewal effort.

The Amoskeag Millyard in Manchester, New Hampshire, bridges the Industrial Revolution, tying the simplicity and classical unity of the New England Colonial town with the dynamic intensity of the modern industrial city; combining in its fabric the pastoral dignity of great barns with the urban density of a European market place. It was built with a mind to the needs of the working class before there was a significant working class in this country to make that effort a self-conscious one, and it was laid out and designed to answer those needs before Le Corbusier had philosophically stripped the "urban" from urban design, or Frank Lloyd Wright had rejected the need to build cities altogether. The Amoskeag Millyard, even in the, smallest details, achieves an extraordinary unity of design, unfamiliar to us in this day of limitless materials which force us to choose instead of to create.

     

THE design of the Millyard segregates rail, truck and pedestrian access with an ease and clarity that makes some of our more celebrated contemporary efforts in this direction seem self-conscious and confused. It consists of two canals parallel to the river providing power to the mills in between. The primary unit within the design was the single mill on one side of the canal and six blocks of housing directly opposite. These units acted as links in an ever-lengthening chain as the Millyard expanded in both directions along the canals. The trains and trucks were able to run unrestricted for the length of the yard between the mill buildings out of sight and hearing from the housing and the city center, while the workers crossed the canals to the mills directly opposite their houses.

It is because we are, after a hundred years of sorry results, still in the age of the gridiron street plan and uncontrolled and unplanned expansion, that Amoskeag should have an important impact on the nation. Manchester is a rare example of a city developed according to a master plan. The town was completely laid out on paper before a single building was built or a single lot sold by the controlling company.

 

WHEN Samuel Blodget, who had built a barge canal around the Amoskeag Falls in what was then the town of Derryfield, announced in 1807 that "For as the country increases in population, we must have manufactories, and here at my canal will be a manufacturing town -the Manchester of America," It is doubtful that even he had any idea of the scale of the complex which would eventually be built around his canal. In 1838, the laying out of the New Town and the construction of the first mills began. The magnitude of this effort can be sensed when one observes that the two granite-lined canals were constructed to their entire one and one-half mile length before the first mills were put into operation. At the very start waterpower was thus provided for a strip of land large enough to serve the needs for half a century - until the introduction of steam and electric power made them unnecessary. The Amoskeag company turned a village of 125 inhabitants into a city of 10,000 in 10 years, and went on to become the largest textile manufacturer in the world, turning out cloth at the staggering rate of 50 miles per hour by 19151

WHAT has distinguished the mills in Manchester from those in the other New England mill towns was that they were all planned and built by the engineering department of one company. It is this unified planning control that is the primary reason for the coherence and consistency of its design. Its architecture is a corporate architecture, using the design elements of an age, rather than one individual's creative expression. Progress for this industry was not marked by a repeated scrapping of the earlier buildings and a total remaking of the whole environment. Instead it involved a continual adaptation of the earlier buildings to new needs, within an over-all design scheme that was just as valuable at the end of the development as it was at the beginning a century before.

Both the mills and the workers' houses are stylistically conservative for their times, and, except for a few examples of high Victorian fantasy in the towers and gateways, the buildings are remarkably plain. The reason for this restraint in the design of individual buildings becomes apparent when one enters the complex. No structure stands isolated or distinct even though the construction and reconstruction of the mills progressed over a period of 75 years. Instead the dense and continuous mass of red brick buildings flow together into a unified and organic whole, with highlights provided by the towers which rise above the complex, giving focal points, not to single buildings, but to the whole urban form.

The Millyard development became a great urban design when the secondary buildings, containing the company offices, shops and storage were joined together to form a regular and continuous wall facing the moat-like canals, between the mills and the city. The entrances to the millyard are across bridges and through archways in much the same way as in an English cathedral close.

Despite the bulk of the larger mills, the whole area is impressive, but not overpowering, because of the continuity and simplicity of the style and the much more domestic character and scale of the curved canal buildings in front of the mills. In most of our contemporary urban offices and apartment complexes, not to mention our public housing projects, this mix of large and small buildings in a uniform and consistent way has been ignored, and the oppressive results are all too apparent. The Amoskeag design remained viable for such a length of time because it was based on an altogether human response to human needs, and it was built to express that response as well as to serve the material demands.

-- o --

THE HISTORY of Amoskeag, however, is not simply one of superficial greatness. It is not like that of Williamsburg, the real lives of whose early figures have been buried beneath the volumes of schoolboy textbook rhetoric, and whose town center has been embalmed and manicured into something which is more Rockefeller baronial than real Colonial.

Amoskeag lives because it is real, and because it symbolizes and expresses so much of what has happened and is still taking place in America. Like its immediate predecessor, Lowell, Massachusetts, Manchester was founded on the early Nineteenth Century utopian principles of providing for the complete life of the mill workers within a closed and carefully set up community, in reaction to the destructive squalor of the first wave of industrialization in England. Accordingly, for most of its life, the Amoskeag Company was unabashedly paternalistic. The early planned community, however, soon became a melting pot, as people from Canada and Europe converged on the city to work in the plants of the rapidly expanding industry. Slowly the exuberance of its first growth was replaced first by the rigidity of old age and then by a slow and agonizing decline. When Amoskeag had reached its highest production the writing was already on the wall. Competition from the South cut into the revenues, and the forgotten early ideals and the grim prospects for the future led to some of the well-known excesses of the industrial age.

 

THE huge company, having come and gone, has left behind a legacy which encompasses a total scope of human experience and feeling. Not only are the mills important for their great design but also because it is only through them that we can capture some of the meaning of the lives of those who worked there during the century of growth and decline. It is for this reason that the destruction of the Amoskeag Millyard is such a profoundly tragic act.

Whereas a single great work of architecture may only be meaningful to those who have some academic knowledge as to what its merits are, a successful large-scale urban development is necessarily more intimately tied to the people of the city itself because it encompasses more of their environment than any single building. The visual image of the Millyard sticks in people's minds whether they live and work in the city or whether they drive by it on the turnpike. Reactions to it may be positive or negative, but what is more important is that they occur. There is no one who, when passing through Manchester, does not notice the Millyard or who fails to react to it in some way. This is the real test of its value to the city. The response of the people involves something more intimately tied to their own lives than just notions of what is attractive or not. For the health of society, it is necessary that people have the opportunity to respond in this way to their environment.

IN 1961, Arthur D. Little Inc. issued a report to the Manchester Housing Authority after a long and detailed study of the "economic problems and possibilities" in Manchester. A major portion of this report was devoted to the Millyard, because of its importance in the city's industrial base. Several alternatives were studied and discussed, and general conclusions were reached. These conclusions, which called for renovation of some buildings and the removal of others, were based on much sound economic evidence. However, it was said that "even with extensive improvements and upgrading, the millyard will never be an asset from an aesthetic point of view." With these words judgment was passed on the quality of the Millyard which, after the proposed renewal, will be the final judgment for all time.

Armed with this report, Urban Renewal is now carrying out a project which it describes thus: "The Amoskeag Millyard project is a simple and sensible solution to this city problem ... Urban Renewal has carefully assessed the repair cost and location of each mill building and of the canals. Those buildings found either likely to be too expensive to repair or far too narrow for modern manufacturing will be cleared. Their space will be used for the creation of adequate streets for off-street parking and loading facilities. In addition, the canals which exist as open sewers will be filled."

The Urban Renewal plan proposes that the long canal buildings and a major part of the river facade be destroyed and the canals filled in. Not a single building, except an industrial sewage plant, is to be built on the site, and that sewage plant, ironically, will be in the midst of a nearby residential area, replacing two blocks of housing and thus ruining the continuity of the finest remaining cluster of corporation workers' housing in New England. Two roads, 60 and 90 feet wide, will stretch only a block from each other through the Millyard, with the remaining cleared space covered with 2500 parking spaces.

The large rectangular mills will then stand isolated and characterless in a sea of trucks and automobiles. The dramatic continuous wall along the river bank will no longer face the highway on the other side, and the quiet spaces along the canals, divided from the bustle of the Millyard by the long three-story canal buildings, will become a part of the bustle itself. The buildings that will be lost will not be the largest buildings, but in terms of the environment in and around the Millyard, they are the most important.

-- o --

IN SPITE of a now regained economic vitality, Manchester, psychologically, is still in the midst of the depression. Instead of making any effort to produce farsighted plans befitting a viable and growing city center, Urban Renewal has carried out several stop-gap projects, wiping out whole city blocks for parking lots and cheap suburban style supermarkets, while the separate "City Planning Board" across the street has produced pretty drawings portraying the Manchester of tomorrow filled with the banal glass boxes, surrounded by "ample parking," characteristic of today everywhere else in America. Throughout history the "simple and sensible solution" has rarely been the most creative solution, but frequently it has been the "final solution," and so it is for the City of Manchester. The shallow observations on which this solution was based were graphically paraphrased by one person on the Urban Renewal staff who said, "What person have you seen who will walk more than 100 feet to wherever he is going?" This seems to be the observation on contemporary American culture which is determining the development of our cities.

More disturbing are the words of the Urban Renewal director, Cary P. Davis, who, in response to earlier criticism of the project, was quoted in the Manchester Union Leader as saying, "Bunk, we are not destroying any monument. We are giving it a lease on life by clearing away the junk ... What is mainly being leveled ... is nothing but a lot of rickety rats' nests and firetraps." As to his contention that "a primary goal of the renewal project is to preserve the best of the Millyard architecture as an acknowledged monument of American industrial history and urban design," the plans show otherwise. With all of the canals and the buildings along them, and most of the river facade now being completely wiped out for badly planned roads and parking spaces, it appears that the head of this important project is as insensitive to the meaning and the need for urban design as the economists of Arthur D. Little.

The Amoskeag Renewal Project is proudly mentioned as the first industrial area renewal and rehabilitation project, but why is it that an Urban Renewal first is always an Urban Renewal worst? (Remember Boston's West End). Why is it that we must always try to learn from disastrous mistakes, rather than from creative ideas?

The real tragedy of the demolition is that the ends sought by the Urban Renewal planners could be achieved without the complete destruction of the Millyard design. Congestion has been caused primarily by the lack of traffic control anywhere within the Millyard or at its entrances, rather than because of the Millyard's density, and the lack of parking could be solved with better results by building garages compatible with the urban center that Manchester should be, rather than by paving over that center.

-- o --

THE fact that a major part of the space in the Millyard is being vacated leads to another observation. The University of New Hampshire, with its current plans for a Merrimack Valley Branch, had the opportunity to create what would certainly have been the finest urban campus in the country, comparable even to the ancient Gothic colleges of Oxford and Cambridge. Instead, with all of the intellectual and planning powers available to a large university, it felt unable and unwilling to attempt to surmount the mundane problems of parking and renovation. It is ironic that while the Millyard is being destroyed, the university will be building a campus on open land, accessible only by automobile which undoubtedly will be, judging from the quality of the present campus, yet another paved-over field surrounded by isolated and unrelated buildings.

The alternative of making the Millyard an integral part of the commercial and business core of the city by creative handling the re-use of the buildings and the problems of access was a solution which the city was not yet mature enough to consider or accept. Instead of pursuing such a course, Manchester has chosen instead to trade its chance to become a metropolitan center with the visual identity and character befitting a great city for the short term gains of improving the conditions for a few selected industrial plants.

-- o --

WHAT is called for in Manchester is bold creative planning with farsighted goals. The present Urban Renewal plans are a part of, rather than a solution to, the problems which they are supposed to alleviate because they are only responses to immediate needs without the addition of anything creatively new and different which might expand the lives of the people and cause the city to grow. The goal of city planning should be to leave something which can endure in the midst of rapidly changing times, and which can provide continuity to the growth of a community instead of contributing to the chaos which may eventually destroy it.

By limiting their analysis of the visual nature of the Millyard to a superficial value judgment, the economists and planners of Arthur D. Little seemed to overlook this. People tend to forget that economics is in fact a social science. In the face of the expansion of the non-city across the land, with its freeway-oriented sprawl, this nation needs to learn the importance of the readily identifiable place. In the effort to save our cities, too often we shear out their hearts, only to find that the computer program of an economic analysis is not sufficient to restore them. Yet we are at a loss to know why. Perhaps by learning to took at and see our environment, rather than by simply reading statistics, we can begin to find out.

WE NOW, for the first time, have it within our capacity even without the aid of The Bomb to destroy utterly almost everything which has been created in the past and build anew, but we have not demonstrated any ability to build at a higher level of quality and creativity than any preceding generation. We have seen unprecedented destruction during this century in two world wars and limitless other conflicts. It is now almost as though we have become so conditioned to devastation and waste that we continue to inflict it upon ourselves as though it all has not, and still does not, matter.

In our great haste we are quickly losing the examples we need in order to grow. Amoskeag is one of those rare instance in the field of city planning and design when the social, economic, and technological characteristics of an age combined with the shape of the particular site, the vision of the planners, and the sensitivity of the designers in such a way as to produce a wholly original work of art. City building rarely reaches the level of art, and when it does, it becomes as priceless as the work of the most famous painters, sculptors or composers, and more universally meaningful and important to the peoples of the nation and the world.