Plymouth Historic District
The Plymouth Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [†] Adaptation copyright © 2011, The Gombach Group.
The Plymouth Historic District is a group of five buildings and their associated lots of land, together with a small village green or common. The Plymouth Historic District stands at the heart of the town center of Plymouth, which itself is the village of a township granted in 1763 under the authority of Benning Wentworth, Royal Governor of New Hampshire. This village commenced to develop during the 1770s, when a courthouse was built within the present Plymouth Historic District and the town meeting house stood nearby. Today, the village is laid out on a series of terraces which rise above the Pemigewasset River, its main street running generally north and south along one of these natural plateaus.
Bounded on the east by Main Street, the Plymouth Historic District lies at the foot of a hillside which rises to the west. The soil of the area is generally sandy, and represents the outwash of ancient glacial lakes and the terracing action of the Pemigewasset River, which has cut its channel deep into the glacial drift since the melting of the glaciers. The buildings of the Plymouth Historic District rest for the most part on a plateau which originally determined the route of Main Street, but the ground commences to rise quickly just to the west of the district.
The Plymouth Historic District retains one natural area, the Plymouth Common. This is a semi-elliptical plot of land measuring about a quarter of an acre and enclosed in a fence of cut granite posts and wooden rails. The common is bounded on the east by Main Street, on the west by a diagonal road which constitutes the right-of-way of New Hampshire Route 3, and on the south by Highland Street, a road which approaches Plymouth Village from the west and intersects Main Street at the Common. The Common was originally an unkempt grassy area through which wagon tracks cut their way. As the village grew, this natural meadow remained undeveloped private property, and eventually became a fixture in the village. The movement toward village beautification, widespread in New England during the mid-nineteenth century, led several public-spirited citizens of Plymouth to offer to enclose and grade the area as a focus of the community. This was accomplished, with the present fencing being contributed in 1861 and elm trees (now gone for half a century) being planted around the perimeter of the plot. The Common remained private property until 1892, when the town acquired ownership.
Today the Common is a grassy tract still enclosed by the fencing of 1861 and bordered by Norway maples which have supplanted the original elms. Toward the south end of the tract is a wooden bandstand with a shingled base and a faceted roof supported by eight turned wooden columns. Built in 1903 for concerts of the Keniston Brass Band of Plymouth (organized in 1902), this structure was designed by Francis V. Bulfinch. Related to local residents, Bulfinch was also the grandson of the famous Boston architect, Charles Bulfinch.
Near the center of the Common is a notable fountain which was given to the town as a commemoration of the good deeds of the Boy Scouts and as an act of kindness to animals. The fountain consists of a bronze statue of a Boy Scout in the uniform of the 1930s, kneeling on a large glacially-rounded boulder and cupping his hands to hold water. The water overflows, and runs down the face of the boulder, and collects in a basin formed by a natural pothole in a rock which was collected from a local streambed. The basin provides water for animals, while two nearby drinking fountains provide water for people. The fountain was built in 1933 as the result of a bequest by Daniel Webster Burrows of Plymouth and was designed by George H. Borst (born 1889), a Philadelphia sculptor and a summer resident of the Plymouth area.
To the west of the Common is a row of four public or commercial buildings which share a common facade line. From north to south, these are: the Plymouth Town Hall and Courthouse (1890), the Plymouth Congregational Church (1985), the Pemigewasset National Bank building (1885), and the Plymouth Post Office building (1936). Behind or to the west of the Plymouth Town Hall and Courthouse, and on the same lot of land, stands the Old Grafton County Courthouse (1774; National Register 1981), moved to this lot and renovated as the town public library in 1876 [now, Plymouth Historical Museum]. While differing widely in dates and materials, the four structures which compose an architectural row within the Plymouth Historic District are similar in scale, and combine to suggest the mixture of masonry and framed construction common to many New England villages. The landscaping of these four buildings further links them with the Common which stands opposite. The buildings retain mature plantings of maple, butternut, and elm trees which echo the similar species growing on the common.
The northernmost of the five buildings in the Plymouth Historic District, and the most monumental in design, is the Plymouth Town Hall and Courthouse, built in 1890 as one of two Grafton County courthouses constructed at that time. Designed by C. Willis Damon of Haverhill, Massachusetts, this is a two-and-a-half-story brick structure with granite detailing, having a T-shaped floor plan, a gable roof, and a projecting tower at the center of its facade or east elevation. The building strongly reflects the Romanesque style which was considered appropriate for public buildings in New England at the period, and echoes details which were used on other county courthouses built in New Hampshire (two of them designed by the same architect) in the early 1890s.
The entrance of the building is at the base of the tower and hence at the center of the facade. It consists of a pair of doors recessed beneath a semicircular arch with a brick archivolt and with square terra cotta floral tiles set into each spandrel. Above the doorway is a three-part window; each sash is surmounted by a semicircular brick arch, with the central arch rising above the flanking arches. Above the windows, the walls of the tower are decorated with widely-spaced projecting bricks which are arranged in a diaper pattern. Above the granite tablet which bears the words "COURT HOUSE" in relieved letters is a brick corbel table supporting the curb of a belfry. The belfry is composed of four massive round brick arches, one on each face of the tower, which spring from heavy brick piers at each corner. Originally open, these arches are now enclosed with wooden shutters which have square louvered blinds in each face. The spandrels above the arches are decorated with square terra cotta floral tiles. The tower is capped by a steep slated hipped roof supported on a deeply projecting corbeled brick cornice.
The walls of the facade which flank the central tower consist of wide brick piers which enclose a recessed panel on each side of the tower. These panels are pierced by paired windows at the basement, first floor, and second floor levels. Each pair of windows shares a common granite sill and lintel. The eaves above the second-floor windows project above a deep corbelled cornice.
Each end elevation of the building is two and a half stories high, with a gable roof. Each end has two recessed panels which are pierced by single windows on each floor. The second-story windows are capped by brick arches which enclose fans bearing sunburst ornaments. Above the arches, the gables of the end elevations are textured by widely-spaced projecting bricks laid in a diaper pattern, and by roughly cut granite curbs which trim the raking eaves of the roof and rest on carved volutes at their lower ends. In the center of each gable rises a panelled brick chimney which is supported on corbels that emerge from the face of the wall gable.
To the west of the front portion of the courthouse extends a high one-story wing which provides a court room. Covered by a high hipped roof, this wing has arched windows on each elevation (four on the north, three on the south, and, originally, two on the west). Each window has a brick panel set below a granite sill, and a semicircular brick arch at its top. The walls between and above the arches are patterned with brick diaperwork of the type seen elsewhere on the building, and the wing has the same heavy corbelled brick cornice as the front section of the structure. The west end of the wing has several brick additions which provide vault space, a jury room, and storage. These were added to the main structure at various times following its completion in 1891.
The interior of the building is finished in relative simplicity, having maple floors, wainscoting of vertical matched boards, and plastered walls and ceilings. The staircase which provides access to the second floor rises at the north end of the main building and provides access to a corridor which runs laterally through the building from north to south. The courtroom in the west wing of the building has the most elaborate detailing found in the structure. Its wainscoting is capped with a heavily moulded chair rail with turned bosses at intervals. Between each window is a pilaster which rises to a capital; above each capital is a console, and above this is a member which appears to be the soffit of an arch or truss. A dropped ceiling of acoustical tiles obscures the original detailing of the ceiling of the room. The room is equipped with a judge's bench and a smaller clerk's desk, and with a balustrade separating this part of the courtroom from the public areas. Originally larger, the courtroom has been reduced in size by the creation of two modern offices at its east end, opposite the bench.
On the lawn in front of the courthouse are fixtures of historic interest, including two granite memorials to citizens of Plymouth who have died in various wars, and a cast iron canon, bearing the British coat of arms, which was captured during the Revolution by New Hampshire general John Stark.
Directly behind or to the west of the Town Hall and Courthouse is a small wooden building which symbolizes the beginning of county government in Plymouth. This is one of two original Grafton County courthouses built in 1774 (the other was destroyed long ago). Adapted as the Plymouth Public Library, this building began its existence on the site of its larger neighbor, was moved away in 1823 and became a wheelwright's shop, and was rescued, returned to its original site, and restored for use as a library in 1876. The original Grafton County Courthouse is a one story hip-roofed frame structure of square floor plan. Measuring 34 feet in breadth and depth, the building stands on a stone and brick foundation dating from 1876. The clapboarded building has simple exterior detailing, with wide corner boards, flat door and window casings, and a deeply projecting cornice. The building has three-bay fenestration on the front (north) and east elevations, the central bay on the north being the principal doorway.
The door is sheltered beneath a simple gable-roofed hood, added sometime after 1906. Windows have 12-over-12 sashes. The asphalt-shingled roof is capped by a square open cupola with a low-pitched hipped roof supported by four square corner columns. A chimney rises from a fireplace on the west wall of the building and is flanked by two windows. On the rear (south) of the building is a wood-framed addition measuring 8 by 12 feet and added in 1963.
The interior of the building is a single room with a brick fireplace centered on the west wall. All interior detailing, including perimeter shelving for library books, was added in 1876. The walls and ceiling of the room are sheathed in matched and beaded "ceiling board," and the flooring is hardwood.
Adjacent to the Plymouth town hall on the south is the modern Plymouth Congregational Church, built in 1985 to replace a church building of 1836 which burned in 1983. This building is constructed on the foundation of its predecessor, and attempts to retain the scale and use of wooden materials of the older building. The building is not considered to detract from the historic quality of the Plymouth Historic District.
Immediately south of the Plymouth Congregational Church is a commercial building constructed in 1835 as the headquarters of the recently chartered Pemigewasset National Bank. Now  used as a jewelry store, this is a two-story brick building with wooden detailing. Its first story consists of a series of bays, each defined by a brick pilasters with wooden capitals that support an entablature at the second story level. Between a number of the pilasters on the front (east elevation) and the south side of the building are store windows, each having three transom sashes filled with lattice muntins. The northernmost bay of the facade provides access to a stairway leading to the second floor, while the next bay south provides an entrance to the old bank lobby, now a store.
The second story of the bank building is characterized by plain brick walls pierced at regular intervals by windows with 1-over-1 sashes and granite sills and lintels. This story is capped by a parapet which encircles three sides of a flat roof and is disguised by an applied wooden entablature having consoles widely spaced along its length.
The interior of the building is largely finished with modern materials which hide any surviving features of original interior detailing.
As originally constructed, this building was an L-shaped structure with its two principal elevations being the front (east) and south walls. Soon after its completion, the bank building was required to house a second bank institution, the Plymouth Guaranty Savings Bank, chartered in 1889. Needing more room in 1914, the two banks constructed an addition at the northwest corner of their building, transforming the plan into a full rectangle and adding some 25% to the floor area of the structure. The building has not changed appreciably since, although the banks vacated the structure in 1955 and sold the property to an electric company. The electric company, in turn, sold the building to private owners of a jewelry business in 1972.
Adjacent to the Pemigewasset National Bank building on the south is the Plymouth Post Office, constructed in 1936 from designs by Louis Adolphe Simon (died 1958), supervising architect of the Public Buildings Administration between 1933 and 1941. A one-story building of brick, trimmed in limestone, this structure has a low-pitched gable roof, a pediment above the central three bays of the facade (covered with lead-coated copper), and a cupola with classical detailing in the center of the roof. The walls are laid in common bond, and are largely unarticulated except where four shallow pilasters define the two outer bays of the five-bay facade. The stone courses above the basement, the window sills, and the window lintels are all limestone, while the remainder of the exterior detailing is wood. The doorway is enclosed within an opening having a segmental brick arch, and is composed of a horizontal entablature supported by antae and engaged Doric columns. In the fanlight area above the entablature is a carved and gilded wooden eagle.
The interior of the post office has a well-finished lobby with floors of green terrazzo bordered by black marble baseboards, a plaster cornice, and hardwood detailing with a natural finish. The upper wall of the north end of the public lobby bears a mural in fresco-secco by R. Crawford Livingston. Painted in 1938 under the Public Works Art Project, this mural depicts "John Balch, the First Post Rider of Plymouth."
The Plymouth Historic District is comprised of four (4) contributing buildings, one (1) noncontributing building, one (1) contributing site, one (1) contributing structure, and one (1) contributing object.
The five buildings within the Plymouth Historic District represent the political, judicial, religious, literary, and commercial history of the community. Dating from various periods and representing several different architectural styles, the buildings within the Plymouth Historic District nevertheless reflect most of the major activities that made Plymouth a regional center in the early twentieth century. Included within the limited area of the Plymouth Historic District are structures that were built to serve and symbolize banking and finance, judicial activity and county government, and the postal service. Another of the structures was rescued and restored in an act which represented both a commemoration of the judicial history of the community and a gift to the town of a building for its fledgling library. The fifth structure, the Plymouth Congregational Church, is a new building which does not contribute to the historical nature of the Plymouth Historic District but nevertheless represents a continuity of function on this site since 1836.
Taken as a whole, the Plymouth Historic District embraces those few key buildings which symbolize the activities that typify village life in a small New Hampshire county seat. While each of these buildings has its particular architectural significance (discussed below), the entire grouping perfectly represents the typical center of a busy and successful New England village — an assemblage of structures of varying dates, materials, and styles. Together, these buildings represent an architectural evolution that spans 160 years, recording in their fabric the growing ambition and prosperity of a village that developed from a pioneering outpost to a regional center of culture, commerce, and law.
The architectural significance of the individual buildings in the Plymouth Historic District is as follows:
Old Grafton County Courthouse (1774), then the Plymouth Public Library (1878), [now the Plymouth Historical Museum]: This building is one of a few 18th century public buildings to survive in New Hampshire. Most of those public buildings that do survive from this period are meeting houses; this is the oldest building constructed specifically for court use remaining intact in the state.
It was built only eleven years after Plymouth was chartered, and represents the determination of John Wentworth, the last royal governor of New Hampshire, to institute county government and courts throughout the province. The square floor plan and hipped roof chosen for the structure reflect early precedents for New England public buildings. This is the building type chosen for most meeting houses from the mid-17th century until about 1700, and the type which had become commonplace for school buildings at about the time this courthouse was constructed. Thus, the form of this rare building was symbolic of its public nature.
The Courthouse is further significant as an early instance of architectural preservation. Probably inspired by the nation's centennial and by a respect for the memory of Daniel Webster (who pleaded one of his first cases in this structure in 1806), U.S. Senator Henry W. Blair (1834-1920) acted to preserve the building. By 1876, the structure had been moved to the outskirts of the village and had degenerated into an ill-repaired wheelwright's shop. At his own expense, Blair moved the building back to the site adjacent to its original location, renovated the exterior, and fitted the interior for use as a library. Originally a private or proprietary library, this building and its collections became a free library in 1896.
Third Grafton County Courthouse, now Plymouth Town Hall and Courthouse (1890): County government in New Hampshire underwent a notable rejuvenation in the last decade of the 19th century. Empowered by various acts of the State legislature, the commissioners of various New Hampshire counties commenced an impressive program of rebuilding their old and obsolete courthouses and archive buildings. Two of the counties (Rockingham County and Grafton County) were sufficiently ambitious to erect two courthouses within their confines within a few months' time.
This surge of building activity offered many opportunities for local architects of the period. One of these men was C. Willis Damon, then practicing in Haverhill, Massachusetts, just south of New Hampshire. Damon was selected not only as the architect of the Grafton County Courthouse in Plymouth, but also as the designer of its sister structure in Woodsville, New Hampshire, and of the still more monumental Rockingham County Courthouse in Portsmouth.
All three of Damon's courthouses were completed in 1891. All share certain stylistic features, notably the use of monumental bell towers to define their entrances, an emphasis on patterned brickwork or stonework, the grouping of windows within well-defined wall panels, the use of heavy Romanesque arches (frequently in arcades), and the careful use of cut granite as a counterpoint to the brick walls. Damon's buildings were among the most successful of any of the courthouses built in New Hampshire at this period. Like the kindred structures built in other New Hampshire counties by George Gilman Adams and William Butterfield, Damon's buildings utilized the Romanesque style to convey a sense of the majesty and gravity of the law, and a feeling of the permanence of the institutions housed within these buildings. All of these architects practiced under the powerful example of H.H. Richardson, and Damon's design of the courthouse at Plymouth, built at the modest cost of $10,000, successfully evokes Richardsonian dignity and solidity on a scale appropriate to the community.
Pemigewasset National Bank Building (1885): A representative business block with semi-public rooms on the first floor and offices on the second, this building offers a good example of the style and scale of similar buildings along Plymouth's main street. The bank building is of interest because of its classical detailing; this apparently reflects the growing interest in "colonial" architecture following the nation's centennial, as well as the multitudes of ready-made architectural components available for embellishment of such buildings.
Plymouth Post Office (1936): Reflecting the classicism of the bank building next door, this structure embodies "colonial" detailing of a more accurate type than that of its predecessor. Together, the two buildings suggest the longevity of the colonial style in the years following the nation's centennial. The post office is one of dozens of solid public buildings constructed in New Hampshire under Federal auspices during the Depression, and in its modest scale and use of classical details is typical of most. Its architect, Louis Adolphe Simon, had served in the office of the Supervising Architect of the U.S. Treasury Department since 1896 and had served as the supervising architect of the Public Buildings Administration for three years before this building was designed. Simon received his architectural training at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology at a period when that school was strongly under the classical influence of Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris.
Hence, the architect's choice of a "colonial" theme for this and other New England post office buildings of the same era reflected not only his own training but probably a familiarity with the region and its prevailing historical style of building.
Combined as they are with the focal points offered by the Plymouth Common, the buildings in the Plymouth Historic District convey a sense of the diversified activity that characterized Plymouth in the early 20th century. The buildings within the Plymouth Historic District have influenced the political, legal, religious, financial and literary lives of the people of the town and region, and continue in a large part to do so. The Plymouth Historic District remains the focus of much life in the community; despite the evolution of use that has affected some of its buildings, the Plymouth Historic District remains distinct from its surroundings in the diversity and public impact of the activities that occur there. As the center of town government, the Plymouth Historic District has had profound effect on its immediate community.
Stearns, Ezra S., A.M. — History of Plymouth, New Hampshire 1763-1906.
Records of Grafton County Registry of Deeds.
Various historical papers belonging to the Plymouth Historical Society.
† Rachel Keniston, Juliet Rand and Erma Ahern, Plymouth Historical Society, Plymouth Historic District, Grafton County, New Hampshire, nomination document, 1985, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.