Central Square Historic District
The Central Square Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [†] Adaptation copyright © 2011, The Gombach Group.
Central Square is an open square at the center of Bristol village, around which the town's commercial district developed in the 19th century. Central Square is a four-sided space, almost rectangular, but wider on its northern side than on its southern side. Six streets enter Central Square at its four corners — Pleasant Street and North Main Street at the northwest corner, Summer Street at the northeast corner, Central Street and Spring Street at the southeast corner, and South Main Street with its bridge over the Newfound River at the southwest corner. (The Newfound River flows behind the buildings on the west and south sides of Central Square. Indeed, two buildings are partially suspended over the river.) Most of Central Square is paved, with sidewalks on all four sides. Besides the Soldier's Monument lot, there is only one small lawn area, on the east side of Central Square in front of the Bartlett House (27 Central Square). Much of Central Square is marked off for parking, and one area at the north end of the Square is specifically set off by curbing for a parking lot.
The Central Square Historic District includes, besides the Square itself, fourteen sites — two late 18th century taverns, one early 19th century house (with a non-contributing 20th century apartment addition) nine 19th century commercial buildings, one non-contributing 20th century commercial building, and a group of public monuments. It includes all of the buildings facing the Square, and one other building just over the South Main Street bridge, which was also part of the 19th century commercial district. While the three residential buildings retain their lawns and sideyards, the later commercial buildings made maximum use of their lots and form almost solid walls on the west, south and part of the east sides of Central Square.
The Central Square Historic District in Bristol is significant in the three separate but related areas of commerce, planning, and architecture. Firstly, it is a small town 19th century commercial district that has survived virtually intact, appearing today almost as it did at the end of the 19th century. Secondly, the layout of that commercial district is rather unique, for its buildings are disposed around an almost rectangular open square, not along a "Main Street" or around a parklike common, as is typical of other New Hampshire towns. Thirdly, the Central Square Historic District includes a high concentration of architecturally interesting buildings of the 18th and 19th centuries.
The success of a commercial district depends on two essentials, a central location and a reliable market. Central Square developed at the major road intersection at the center of a manufacturing village on the Newfound River. And its history actually begins with the construction of the first road and the first mill in the community. The township of New Chester (an area encompassing the present towns of Bristol and Bridgewater in Grafton County and Hill Town in Merrimack County) was granted to a group of proprietors in 1753. But the actual settlement of the grant did not begin until the late 1760's. The proprietors then had a crude road built along the Pemigewasset River from the Franklin boundary to the Plymouth boundary. This first road crossed the Newfound River at what is now the South Main Street bridge and continued to the northeast along today's Summer Street. About 1767, the first mill in the township, a sawmill and gristmill, was built on the Newfound River just east of Central Square. Today's Central Street developed as a path from the main road to the mill. Its junction with the proprietors' road was, in fact, the first road intersection in the town. In 1769, the miller's log cabin became the first building on the present Square when it was erected on the site of Joe's Supermarket, a noncontributing, concrete walled 2-story building with almost flat roof and stucco covered second story.
The mill was an important destination for the town's early farmers. And the intersection of the mill road and the proprietors' road began to develop as a small commercial center by the end of the 18th century. The first store in Bristol opened in the 1790's in a building just north of the miller's house. As early as 1797, a blacksmith shop had been erected on the site at 5 Central Square. And, by 1794, two taverns had opened at the northeast corner of the Square. Ebenezer Kelly's tavern, 1 Summer Street, [now the Bristol Baptist Church Parsonage building] has been extensively remodeled, but Moses Sleeper's tavern has received relatively minor alterations which do not obscure its typical late 18th century design.
The intersection became even more important in 1805, when the Mayhew Turnpike was built from the Smith River north, via the east shore of Newfound Lake, to West Plymouth. The Turnpike entered Central Square over the South Main Street bridge, and continued north as today's North Main Street. The Turnpike was a short cut from the Baker River valley, and to some extent, the upper Connecticut River valley, south to the Merrimack River valley and Massachusetts. It soon developed as an important highway, and other roads were built to connect with it. About 1808, today's Pleasant Street was constructed from the Turnpike west towards South Alexandria, Danbury, and other western New Hampshire towns, incidentally establishing the northwest corner of the Square. The southeast corner's importance was reinforced when Spring Street, a residential street, opened sometime before 1820, and when Central Street was extended to the new Central Bridge over the Pemigewasset River to New Hampton in 1823. Central Street became the main entry to the village when the Franklin and Bristol Railroad station on the bank of the Pemigewasset River opened for business in July of 1848.
Thus, in the early 19th century, Central Square became the major road intersection in the town. Unfortunately, we know less about the establishment of the Square itself. Town records do not mention any formal layout of the Square, although they do describe the layout of the roads running through the Square, which did establish some of its boundaries. The open space of Central Square may have appeared simply in response to public use, as a wide space that developed naturally at the intersection of five major roads. And there may have been private decisions by bordering landowners to leave the space to the public. Probably, Central Square was created by a combination of all of these public and private decisions. Whatever the cause, the result was an almost rectangular open square that does give Bristol's downtown a rather unique formal focus. The typical 19th century New Hampshire business district developed along a Main Street or, occasionally, around a common. There were few open spaces in business districts. And most of them, such as Market Square in Portsmouth and the Central Squares of Rochester and Dover, were vaguely triangular in shape, actually little more than widened intersections. The only other New Hampshire square that shares the almost rectangular shape and the formal quality of Bristol's Central Square is Tremont Square in Claremont, which did not acquire its present plan until after an 1879 fire cleared the site. The unique character of Central Square's layout should be recognized as an important exception to the usual New Hampshire downtown layout.
The development of mills using the waterpower of the Newfound River and the growth of the village on the river should not be described here in any detail. Suffice it to say, that by 1819, the village was large enough to become the center for a new town called Bristol. And, that within twenty years, that town's population nearly doubled. The Square, with its central location, became the natural commercial district for Bristol. In the early 19th century, there were a few houses built on the Square. Of these, only the Bartlett House remains. It is a fine vernacular Federal brick house, one of the best buildings of its period in the town. Public buildings, the Town Hall, churches and schools were located near, but not on, the Square. By the Civil War, most of the buildings on the Square were commercial. The majority of these early buildings were wooden, like the Bean-Tukey Block c.1841, and the Cass Block c.1848. Despite some later alterations, these two gable-roofed buildings are typical of the period. Densely packed wooden buildings do, however, raise the danger of fire, and the west side of the Square burned twice. On July 4, 1861, a fire destroyed four buildings and gutted the brick White's Block. White's Block was remodeled as a two-story, flat-roofed block, and a similar brick block, the Cavis Block, was built just south of it. Another fire on December 7, 1871, destroyed the southern buildings on the west side again. And two more two-story, flat roofed brick fronted blocks were built there in 1872 (11-13 Central Square and 7 Central Square). All four buildings share the same scale and basic design, creating a unified Victorian facade on the west side, which remains one of the most attractive features of Central Square.
Commercial expansion continued in the late 19th century. Some buildings were enlarged. The Abel Block received a third floor and was remodeled in the fashionable Second Empire style in 1878. It is still one of the best buildings on Central Square. The commercial district also began to expand along Pleasant Street, North and South Main Streets. The Draper Block 1874-5 (2 South Main Street), just south of the South Main Street Bridge is one of the two survivors of this modest expansion. It is a good example of a simpler late Victorian brick commercial block. The three-story brick block erected by the Bristol Savings Bank 1892-3 was more pretentious, requiring the services of a Concord architectural firm. The skills of Dow & Randlett are certainly obvious in this dominating building. Almost at the end of the century, the symbolic importance of Central Square as the heart of the community was recognized by the erection of a Civil War soldiers' monument in 1897.
The 20th century has, of course, had its effect on the Central Square Historic District. The Square was paved in 1900 and has since acquired the usual parking spaces, road signs, street lights, etc. More serious was the loss of three buildings Ichabod Bartlett's Store (on the site of the parking lot at the north end of the Square), the Hotel Bristol (at the northwest corner of the North Main Street and Pleasant Street intersection), and the Emerson Block (at the northeast corner of the Central Square and Central Street junction). But, these losses led to the construction of only one 20th century building facing the Square, Joe's Supermarket on the site of the Emerson Block. The Bartlett Store site was absorbed into the Square's open space. And that section of the Hotel Bristol site facing the Square is now a rather small landscaped park. Bristol's new commercial buildings have appeared not on the Square itself, but on the formerly residential streets near it — South Main Street, Pleasant Street and Lake Street. There has been some modernization of the Square's buildings, notably new storefronts and new siding on a few of the wooden buildings. However, with the possible exception of the Baptist Parsonage, these alterations have not been so extensive as to threaten the integrity of Central Square's architecture. Although restoration has begun on only a few of the buildings, the Central Square Historic District still retains, to a large extent, its late 19th century appearance, Today, the Central Square Historic District contains a rare downtown square, an almost intact late 19th century commercial district, and a number of individual buildings of architectural merit. It is therefore, certainly, worthy of inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places.
Charles E. Greenwood, History of Bristol, 1819-1969, Meredith, N.H., 1969.
Richard W. Musgrove, History of the Town of Bristol, New Hampshire.
Bristol, N.H., 1904, (also reprinted Somersworth, N.H., 1976).
Bristol Weekly Enterprise, June 22, 18?8 (Abel Block); November. 9, 1893 (Bristol Bank).
Photographic Collections of The Bristol Historical Society and Mason Westfall.
† David Ruell, Lakes Region Planning Commission, Central Square Historic District, Bristol, Grafton County, New Hampshire, nomination document, 1982, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.