Community House secures its history
April 21, 2011LITTLETON- What began as a step towards gaining a spot on the New Hampshire State Register of Historic Places has taken on a life of its own in the newly printed copies of the history of the Community House. The project, which took former Community House board member Ron Bolt six months to complete, will now be available for public consumption within the walls of the library, the historical society, and the very house it historicizes.
"The biggest problem was just finding the records," said Bolt of the process that had him reading all the minutes from Community House board meetings over the past century, as well as combing through Grafton County and town of Littleton documents for information on the building's past.
The quest came about when the Community House's board of directors realized the building needed a lot of repair. Former board member Jeanne Dickerman came up with the idea of seeking help from the New Hampshire Preservation Alliance, a non-profit group aimed at helping communities and people restore and preserve old buildings. Their top suggestion was to seek a place on the New Hampshire State Register of Historic Places. With that designation, comes greater leverage in winning grants. In order to apply for a spot on the list, a treatise on the building's history was needed.
"As you looked at what was happening at the Community House, it was kind of like a miniature U.S. history," said Bolt. The Community House was ultimately awarded a spot on the list in 2007, and has won grants that have made a number of projects possible.
In addition to the historical events that took place inside of the house, is the significance of the structure itself. A Queen Anne-style mansion, Bolt notes that the mark of Charles F. Eastman, who built the residence in 1884, is everywhere.
"It was very fascinating because supposedly the Eastman family were lumber barons. You can see from the drawings that he knew exactly what he wanted," said Bolt, pointing to some detailing on a banister post that was on the original architectural drawings. Those drawings, a significant piece of history themselves, were donated to the state historical society as they have the resources to preserve the 24 pages of parchment-like material.
The house served as the Eastman residence for the first 30 years of its life, but that all changed when, following World War I, the town sought for a way to memorialize the men who had represented the town in the fight.
"The desire was to help the living while commemorating the dead," the book poetically puts it.
Thus, the idea of starting a civic center, and using it as a sort of living memorial to those men, was born – and so was the Community House as we know it today. On Sept. 24, 1919, 119 men and women signed the articles of incorporation for the Littleton Community Center (LCC). The cause was led by Judge Harry L. Heald, who also served as the LCC's first president.
Much of the building's preservation is owed to the live-in couples or caretakers who have stayed in the Community House since 1919, said Board Member Mary Edick. Bolt gleaned some of his information about the place from the diary maintained by one such individual.
"It was almost like a love story," said Bolt. "You could just tell what she really felt about this place. The detail and care that went into those was quite remarkable."
Local photographer George Mitchell provided many of the photographs for the book. He took them several years ago when he, and a local newspaper reporter, set about documenting the building.
"It's really important that people were aware of what was here, and we wanted to make sure they were recorded for historical purposes," said Mitchell.
The book chronicles the house's many uses across the decades. In 1924, playing host to the Littleton Community Nursing Association, two of the building's rooms served as nurses' living quarters. Also during the 1920s, showers in the basement were used by townspeople and travelers alike. The 1930s saw the first use of the Community House by the Littleton Garden Club, who still use the annex today for its annual summer sale.
When war broke out in the 1940s, the house was used by the Rationing Boards and Superintendents of Schools of Northern Grafton and Coos counties to discuss sugar rationing. In the late 1950s, the annex was converted into a youth center called Teen Town, complete with television room, snack bar, and a room for dances and games. The 1960s saw the Community House play host to a "Nixon for President" campaign, and 3,186 received the Sabine oral vaccine there.
The 1970s saw the end of Teen Town and of using the Community House as a transfer point for buses, but the building was used as the starting and finishing point for the First Annual Littleton Road Race and for judging for the Sidewalk Art Exhibit. In 1988, Senator Gary Hart made his last public appearance on the steps of the Community House before dropping out of the presidential race.
1994 marked the Community House's 75th anniversary, which was commemorated by a summer-long series of events. Later that decade, the Community House became handicap-accessible. In the 2000s, the Community House was used for such varied purposes as the start-up meetings for the local Habitat for Humanity chapter to the setting for a production of "Belle of Amherst," a one-woman show about the life of Emily Dickinson performed by a Littleton native.
Today, roughly 70 groups on a regular or occasional basis, and over 15,000 people use the Community House and Annex each year. This includes municipal meetings of boards and committees, office space, and parties. The Community House has implemented a fee for the use of the building to help pay for the cost of preserving the buildings and their services.
These examples are just a small taste of the estimated 500 groups and two million people that have used the Community House and Annex over the years, and that are recorded in the book, which demonstrates the Community House's legacy is not in its service to one organization or faction, but in its ability to transform to fit the needs of Littleton whatever they may be.