The Tilton Downtown 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. [‡]
The Tilton Downtown Historic District is a commercial district that developed along Main Street in the center of Tilton village. The street is a busy highway (now part of U.S. Route 3) with curbed sidewalks on both sides. Within the Tilton Downtown Historic District, Main Street intersects three other streets Bridge Street, which goes directly south to the Upper Bridge over the Winnipesaukee River, School Street, which leads north by the Tilton School to Sanbornton village, and Central Street, a short street connecting to Church Street, which is essentially a back street paralleling Main Street to the north, and providing access to parking lots and the rear entries of Main Street buildings. Main Street widens and changes direction at its intersection with School and Bridge Streets. This wide junction, known as Veterans Square, contains a World War I monument and a statue representing America, both set in small planters. Just south of Main Street is the Winnipesaukee River, which forms the rear boundary for most of the Tilton Downtown Historic District properties on the south side of the street, and also serves as the border between the towns of Tilton and Northfield.
Besides the monument and the statue, the Tilton Downtown Historic District contains sixteen buildings, seven on the south side of the street and nine on the north. These include seven 19th century commercial buildings, three 19th century public buildings (two churches and the Town Hall), two mills built in the 1870's, a late 19th-early 20th century hotel and three 20th century commercial buildings (one of which is a non-contributing structure). The Town Hall and the commercial buildings (with one exception) were built on the sidewalk and closely together with only narrow alleys or driveways between them. The churches were set back slightly from the street. The two mills were, of course, erected on the riverbank, partially suspended over the river that once provided them with power.
The Tilton Downtown Historic District is significant in the separate but not unrelated areas of commerce and architecture. Firstly, it is a representative small town Main Street with a typical mix of late 19th and early 20th century commercial and public buildings. Secondly, many of the buildings in the Tilton Downtown Historic District, particularly the Victorian ones, are architecturally interesting and worthy of individual recognition.
Commercial districts need for their success both a central location and a reliable market. The area that became Tilton's Main Street had the first, a good location at an important river crossing, from its beginnings. But, the second would not appear until a prosperous mill village developed along the Winnipesaukee River in the 19th century.
Although the Sanbornton grant (an area encompassing the present Towns of Sanbornton and Tilton, as well as part of the City of Franklin) was made in 1748, actual settlement was delayed until 1764 by the French and Indian War. The first real step the proprietors took to develop their lands was to build a road north from Canterbury, across the Winnipesaukee River, to the center of their grant in 1762. The following year, they voted to build a bridge over the river. The first Sanbornton Bridge stood just a little upstream of the present Bridge Street bridge. Most of the early settlers crossed this bridge on the way to their new homes. And, despite the later construction of other bridges over the river, Sanbornton Bridge remained an important river crossing through the 19th century.
In 1765 and 1766, the first permanent mill in Sanbornton, a sawmill and gristmill built with help from the proprietors, was erected on the Winnipesaukee River, a few hundred yards downstream from the bridge. Although Main Street was not formally laid out as a public highway, "from ye great Bridge to ye grist mill" until 1772, after the incorporation of the Town of Sanbornton, it must have existed as a well-used path from the opening of the mills. The bridge and the mills were important destinations for the residents of the area. And, most of the major roads now meeting at Main Street correspond to the earliest roads laid out in the 1770's by the Sanbornton Selectmen — School Street north to Sanbornton Square, a road (now U.S. Route 3) east along the Winnipesaukee River to East Tilton, and another road northwest to Tin Corner and west along a range road to Franklin. (The present westerly U.S. 3, a more direct route to Franklin, was built in 1825.)
This important intersection was a natural site for a country store. As early as 1789, the first store within the present bounds of the Town of Tilton, was in business at the corner of Main and School Streets. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, a few small mills were built along the river and a village grew up along Main Street. But, for decades, Sanbornton Bridge was a modest hamlet, not much different from the other villages of Sanbornton, like Tin Corner, East Tilton, or Sanbornton Square. A map of 1814 and a description of about 1820 depict a village with twelve to fifteen houses, the mills, and a few commercial enterprises clustered around the Main, School and Bridge Street junction single store, a hotel, a blacksmith shop, a lawyer's office, and a tailor's shop.
The real growth of Sanbornton Bridge came with the development of larger mills, particularly textile mills, on the Winnipesaukee River from the late 1820's on. The population increased and the village became much more than a crossroads hamlet. In 1848, the importance of the village was further reinforced by the opening of the Boston, Concord & Montreal Railroad and the construction of a railroad station on Main Street. (Now removed, the station stood west of Central Street, just outside the District.) Sanbornton Bridge developed its own strong separate identity, as evidenced by the public buildings built on its Main Street, the Congregational Church in 1838, the Methodist Church in 1857. In the 1860's, there arose a strong movement for the creation of a new town centered on Sanbornton Bridge. This effort culminated in 1869, with the incorporation of the Town of Tilton. Tilton's growth continued through the rest of the 19th century. New mills were built, such as Hazen Copp's two mills in the District, a gristmill in 1872, and his Mill No. 3 in 1897. The town's population grew from 1,147 in 1870 to 1,926 in 1900, an increase of 67%. In the village, new streets were laid out and soon lined with houses.
This growth was reflected in the commercial district which expanded to fill Main Street between the railroad station and the School Street-Bridge Street intersection. The older houses and stores in the area disappeared. Most of the buildings now in the Tilton Downtown Historic District date from the prosperous decades following the Civil War. (Twelve of the fifteen contributing buildings are known to have been built between 1859 and 1894.) The earlier commercial buildings in the Tilton Downtown Historic District are smaller wooden structures. The more modest of these, Meserve's Store and the Page Block were unpretentious gable roofed buildings. Bryant and Lawrence's flat-roofed block is more impressive, a fine Victorian vernacular building, reflecting an increasing interest in ornament.
The new Victorian taste was also reflected in the three public buildings in the District. The Congregational Church was raised and remodeled in 1867, receiving new more stylish windows. The 1872-73 Trinity Episcopal Church, designed by architect Edward Dow, is a good example of the Gothic Revival, perhaps the most popular post Civil War ecclesiastical style. Edward Dow probably also designed the Tilton Town Hall of 1879-80, a fine building given to the town by Charles E. Tilton. Tilton, who made a fortune on the West Coast, returned to his native village to spend it. As the gift of the Town Hall demonstrates, he was generous and interested in the development, both physical and aesthetic of the village. He laid out parks and erected statues, such as America in front of the Town Hall. In 1886 and 1887, he built two fine Victorian brick commercial blocks, the Charles E. Tilton Block and the Alfred Tilton Block (Iona Savings Bank). The latter is arguably one of the best late 19th century commercial buildings in the state. Others followed Tilton's example by investing in Main Street properties. In 1887-88, the local banks erected the fine Bank Block, designed by Dow & Wheeler, between Tilton's two blocks. And in 1893-94 Hazen Copp built a two-story wooden block with exuberant ornament in front of his lower mill.
Growth and change continued, although at a much more modest pace, in the 20th century. In the first two decades, two new buildings, the Loverin Block and the Tilton Block, were erected in the District. Two buildings of the 1870's were incorporated into the Tilton Inn. The symbolic importance of the downtown was recognized by the erection of the World War I Monument in 1919. New siding and storefronts appeared on many buildings. Surprisingly, most of the new storefronts in the Tilton Downtown Historic District, if not particularly compatible with their buildings, are of more than usual architectural interest, particularly, the classical storefronts the local banks added to their buildings. Some earlier buildings on Main Street (not in the Tilton Downtown Historic District) were so severely remodeled as to lose their original character. Other important buildings are now gone entirely, the Methodist Church, the Railroad Station, the Hotel Loverin and Hill's Block. Such losses were perhaps inevitable. But there remains in the Tilton Downtown Historic District, a solid core of fifteen historic buildings. Some, such as the Town Hall and the Episcopal Church are virtually unchanged. Others, such a the Bryant & Lawrence Block and the Alfred Tilton Block have been, or are being, restored. Some buildings have received new siding, storefronts, or modest additions, but all still retain their basic forms and can be restored without much difficulty. The Tilton Downtown Historic District is a basically intact late 19th and early 20th century Main Street, with a good number of architecturally important buildings, which should be recognized and preserved.
Tilton, New Hampshire, "Granite Monthly," November-December, 1885, Vol. VIII, p.328.
Rev. M.T. Runnels — History of Sanbornton, New Hampshire, (Boston, 1882), Vol. 1, p.432.
Other examples of Charles E. Tilton's wealth and taste include three structures already in the National Register, his home, the Charles E. Tilton Mansion, on the hill north of the District, above the Town Hall; and two of his benefactions, the Tilton Island Park Bridge, a few hundred yards east of the District, and the Memorial Arch of Tilton atop a nearby hill in Northfield overlooking the District.
Elaine Randall and Carol Stone — Tilton Centennial Book, (Tilton, 1969).
Rev. M.T. Runnels — History of Sanbornton, New Hampshire, (Boston, 1882).
Sanborn Map Company, Tilton, New Hampshire, (New York, August, 1889; January, November, 1899; October, 1904; March, 1912 and April, 1923) — insurance maps.
‡ David Ruell, Lakes Region Planning Commission, Tilton Downtown Historic District, Belknap County, New Hampshire, nomination document, 1982, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.
Main Street • Route 11 • Route 3