|THE KEENE STATE COLLEGE MAGAZINE FOR ALUMNI AND FRIENDS||VOLUME XXI NUMBER 1 Fall 2005|
Little Blue House by the River
On the banks of the Ashuelot, in a forgotten corner of the campus, sits a gem of a building, nestled among an odd collection of garages, garden sheds, dumpsters, and recycling bins.
The little building, only 24' by 17', was once owned by New Hampshire Governor Samuel W. Hale, a chair manufacturer and railroad entrepreneur, as an integral part of his grand estate. Today it is part of the KSC recycling center.
In horticulture terms, the building was known as a "head house" – the non-glass portion of a greenhouse. A head house forms the main entryway to the glass structure and provides a place for potting.
"It is beautiful, better than I expected," said George Laine '62 when he visited the building in June. The Westmoreland artist, who has won a measure of recognition for his paintings of buildings of Historic Harrisville, N.H., called the head house a "sliver of history" and "a strong piece of architecture."
Others agree. "I think it is a historic building, no doubt about that...with a pedigree," said John Summers '56. The Keene sporting goods merchant and ardent historic preservationist described it as a "nice find."
Local historian and former KSC assistant librarian David Proper, some of whose Keene Sentinel columns have been anthologized in A "Keene" Sense of History, said he believes this may be the oldest wood frame building on campus.
On a recent June day, Proper visited the building. "It is all machine made," said Proper with satisfaction, admiring the decorative woodwork. The roof brackets, he pointed out, are composed of lathe-turned spindles that may have been produced in local factories. The elaborate woodwork, he said, could easily be replicated with modern tools.
"This is wonderful stuff," Proper said, running his hands along the clapboards. "This is great. I would love to see it refurbished."
The Victorian head house was once located behind the Hale mansion at the corner of Main and Winchester Streets. The acquisition of the Hale property was a pivotal event in the founding of Keene State. The property was offered by Keene to New Hampshire so the state would establish a normal school here. The ploy worked. The Elm City beat out Nashua and other comers for the honor.
An impressive Italianate mansion, Hale Building houses the president's office and other administrative functions. The structure was home to not one but two nineteenth-century governors – Samuel Dinsmoor, who built the house in 1861, and Samuel W. Hale, who built an imposing greenhouse or "conservatory" sometime after 1869 in keeping with the estate's grandeur. The structure resembled the Crystal Palace, the great exhibition hall in London.
Of the estate's outbuildings, the head house alone survives. It is a one-story building with a steep hip roof, once topped by an elongated cupola or steeple. The roofing material was slate, some of which can be seen on its surviving dormer. A narrow stairway leads to an attic. The head house had three dormer windows and an elaborate overhanging porch supported by brackets.
The head house was salvaged when the glass house was demolished to make way for dormitories. It was moved to the baseball field, which was located near the present Zorn Dining Commons loading dock. It served as a storage shed, according to Donald Carle '52, who remembers the rakes, shovels, and bags of lime inside.
After the athletic fields were relocated across the river, the head house began its new life as a recycling center, shorn of its cupola and two of its three dormers. The distinctive slate roof was replaced with one of asphalt.
According to Mary Jensen, KSC's sustainability and recycling coordinator, the house has been used for its present purpose "for a really long time, at least since the 1980s."
The Hale greenhouse was one of the two largest in the state, according to Striving: Keene State College 1909/1984 by James G. Smart, who retired from the KSC history department in 1994.
Smart recently visited the greenhouse's only remaining component and found it to be "a reminder of the past, a little part of Keene."
"I think it is a wonderful little building," he said. "The old Victorian style takes you back a hundred years."
Now in the head house, bottles are separated, recycling bins stored, and aluminum cans crushed. A tattered poster of a van Gogh painting hangs on the west wall. Most of the original dark-stained wainscoting has survived, giving the interior spaces a severe feel to them, common to buildings of the period.
Time has not been kind to the head house. Its light-blue paint is badly peeling. Window panes are missing. The building appears to be settling toward the Ashuelot River, which runs just behind it.
The College has no specific plans for the head house. The master plan calls for the recycling center and other utility structures to be moved to create a more appealing frontage to the river.
Ideas abound for reuse. Arthur "Bud" Winsor, who oversees the College grounds and first identified the building from an archival photograph in his office, would like to see it reused as part of a new greenhouse. The painter Laine would like to see it rehabilitated for an artist-in-residence program. Other suggestions include a boathouse on Brickyard Pond. Mary Jensen, the sustainability coordinator, values the building for its current function but thinks it would make a perfect comfort station for a river walk.
Summers said the building's small size makes restoring and reusing the head house a practical endeavor. "It should be easy to move," he said. As part of the preservation project Save the Mill Buildings Now!, Summers oversaw the relocation of two 1830s brick houses across several city blocks for use by the Keene Housing Authority.
The head house is a beautiful building, added Laine. "It is an intact piece of history," he said. "It should be recycled for another century."
It looked like a small church, said Carle from his home in Peterborough, remembering the faded grandeur of the head house near the baseball field. He said even then the head house stood out. "It was eye-catching," recalled Carle. "It would be fun to see that again."
Keene native Steve Lindsey is a freelance writer.