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North Manchester Center for History Has a New Face
For months, the North Manchester Center for History (NMCH) has been planning and building its new face on Main Street. Inspired by the town’s façade improvement program, the NMCH decided to address two of its most pressing problems--new windows and improved handicapped access.
The first step was to decide on a plan. In the 115 years since the original Oppenheim Department Store building was constructed, there have been two major façade renovations, in the 1920’s and in 1969. The building next door at 120 E. Main, which was incorporated into the 1969 renovations, was another factor. Photographs of all these reincarnations are available in the NMCH collection.
NMCH has had four separate architectural plans suggested for its façade in the 14 years since it moved into its present location. A NM Historical Society committee consisting of Ralph Naragon, Dave Randall, Jim Garman, Joe Vogel, Tim Taylor, Joyce Joy and Mary Chrastil examined all of the previous plans, taking ideas from each to decide on the best option. According to Chrastil, NMHS President, “We would have loved to return to the façade from Victorian times. But that front no longer exists. The windows both on the first floor and upstairs were substantially changed during the 1929 renovations, and further altered in 1969.”
The overall plan decided upon was to return as much as possible to the 1920’s look, which might be described as early 20th century commercial style. A plan taking the most desirable features of the four suggested architectural plans was adopted with NMHS Board approval. Since NMHS knew it could not afford to restore its entire façade at this time, the plan that was adopted has several stages. The first stage, completed this year, is to replace the main floor windows and doors.
The plan needed to take into consideration that the building is now used as a museum, with requirements concerning public access and protection of any artifacts on display. The most noticeable difference is the darkness of the new windows. The old windows had film affixed to them which protected against ultraviolet rays, one of the most damaging challenges to museum collections. The film was scratched and crackled and needed to be replaced with UV protected glass, which looks dark from the street. To offset the darkness, the NMCH is hoping to upgrade its window spotlights to LED lights eventually. LED technology has improved rapidly the past several years to the point where LED lights are more affordable. They are so energy efficient that they can be on for extended periods yet use much less electricity than the Compact Florescents now in the windows. This will be the second time the Center has upgraded its window lighting; the CFs were a big improvement several years ago when they replaced the original hot, energy-wasting spotlights.
Another noticeable difference is the elimination of an entrance in the east portion of the building (the former men’s store), and the addition of ADA-compliant doors in the central portion. The new doors are wider to bring them into compliance and have an automatic door opener making it easier for wheel chairs and walkers to pass through. “It’s not that handicapped access was not available before, but we had to open both of our double doors (each of which was too narrow by itself), and there was no automatic assistance. The doors themselves were very heavy and hard to use.” In addition, when the doors are locked you can now exit with a crash bar, giving safer exit from the building in an emergency. The new entrance configuration also provides an airlock, which will help with utility bills.
Eliminating the doors in the east alcove of the building provides symmetry to the façade, and has the bonus of adding some welcome exhibit space. The difference is that the space is entered from the inside rather than the street side. Says Chrastil, “We were able to save the terrazzo floor in the entranceway, and the original window platforms, which were highly desired objectives. Removing the windows from the alcove opens up the space, making a unique area where special exhibits can be highlighted, all with losing only inches of the total window display to the exterior.”
There was an added bonus to the construction. Once the windows were cleared, NMCH decided to take up the unattractive floor coverings that had been used for years. Several layers down, they found original hardwood floors. The floors have now been scraped, sanded and sealed, resulting in beautiful window display areas.
Another bonus was finding railings in the basement from long-ago Oppenheim Store displays. The railings have been repaired, painted and reconstructed to fit into the new display area in the former east alcove. Lemoine Gemmer, a master craftsman, did wonderful job of rebuilding and attaching the railings. It’s nice to be able to use something from the original store in our restoration efforts.
While there have been dramatic changes to the façade and display windows, there are other less-noticeable improvements. For 80 years, nails, staples and hooks have been pounded into the ceilings and walls. These have now been removed, and the ceiling repainted for the first time in almost 50 years. The brick façade that was installed under the windows in 1969 has been removed, revealing the original metal facing. Further brick removal of the façade bricks has exposed brick and granite surfaces from the 1920’s, somewhat damaged but with good promise for the next stages of restoration.
While the window installation was contracted, much of the other work was done by volunteers, led by Ralph Naragon and assisted by Dave Randall. Says Chrastil, “Ralph has spent days doing prep work, refinishing floors, and assisting the contractors. He’s saved the Center thousands of dollars. This project has expanded well beyond its original scope. It’s like replacing a sofa in your living room—then a chair needs to be recovered, the carpet looks shabby and needs to be replaced, the paint needs to be freshened up, and new curtains would be nice.”
What’s next? According to Chrastil, it’s been very expensive to implement the restorations so far, even with a significant amount of volunteer labor. “The town façade program was designed to help the normal sized downtown storefront; the reality is that we have a front the size of three normal storefronts. The funds from the town program covered less than a third of our window costs. We know that the next phase--the removal of the overhang, addition of awnings and restoration of the upper story--will be even more expensive than the first phase, partly because we don’t know what damage was done to the 1920’s façade when the 1969 front was constructed.
“The town façade program got us started on something we might have delayed for years. We are so grateful to the town for their program, and we are pleased to be able to invest in our community. We are devoted fans of the efforts over the past several years to improve Main Street. It may take a few years, but the next phase is definitely one of our goals.”