Dorchester Common Historic District
The Dorchester Common Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985. 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 Dorchester Common Historic District consists of three 19th century public buildings set in a clearing against a backdrop of trees and fronting what is today known as the Dorchester Common, forming a unique example of a traditional rural New England center of political, religious, educational and social activity. Serving as a muster field and later a farm field, the grassy common was not part of the town center until the church was moved here in 1883. The roads leading into the Dorchester Common remain unpaved and combine with the open spaces, once farmed, now re-wooded, to retain the rural atmosphere and provide an appropriate setting for the simplicity of these vernacular structures.
The three buildings which comprise the Dorchester Common Historic District are as follows:
1. Dorchester Community Church
A simple white clapboard structure rectangular in plan above a granite slab foundation and capped by a steeply pitched gable roof, the front ridge of which is surmounted by a square tower with open cupola. Situated with its gable end facing southward, the church measures three bays wide and three deep. The central entrance consisting of double doors each with four elongated panels is set above a curbed platform containing random stones. Simple pilasters flank the doorway, echoed in the plain pilaster cornerboards supporting the gable end cornice returns. Like the doorway, the double-hung 6/6 windows are capped by entablature lintels. Louvered shutters frame the window openings. A circular window divided segmentally is located in the gable, Above a square clapboarded base, six wooden posts support the hexagonal aluminum domical cap and weather vane. A brick corbel cap chimney is located on the rear ridge of the asphalt roof.
As seen today the appearance of the church is largely a result of the moving and rebuilding of the structure in 1883. The original nondenominational church, known as the South Meeting House was built in 1828 in the Thompson Hill area of Dorchester where its foundation is still visible. Built on a subscription basis, its charter is preserved in the Dorchester Historical Museum. By 1803 most of the families living near the church had moved away and it was decided to move the building about two miles to a more central location near the Town Hall. Rebuilt on a smaller scale, timbers were cut at a local mill reducing the structure's size from 40' x 50' to 33-1/2' x 40-3/4'. Building records suggest that the original church, designed by Bailey Welch of Canaan for $300 closely resembled the North Church in Canaan, also designed by Welch in 1828. (see Canaan Street Historic District listed on the National Register of Historic Places). It featured a square tower projecting four feet from the facade and standing fifty feet high and capped by eight points in the Gothic Revival style. The side elevations of the original church were also three bays wide but the windows contained forty lights each and were topped by pointed arch blind fans.
Although the church went through a period of neglect early in this century, funds were contributed c.1940 by a local family, the Thayers, for the restoration and electrification of the church. Religious services continue to be held in the church every Sunday from Easter through Christmas, dirt parking area separates the Church and Town House, to the east.
2. Town House
A single story clapboarded structure set on a granite slab foundation, its low pedimented facade facing southward. Above a granite step the central entrance contains a set of six-panel double-doors which are flanked by pilasters displaying entasis and capped by a blind fan echoed by a similar fan in the pediment. Cornerboards articulate the building edges. Flanking the entrance are two simple 20/15 light double-hung windows with windows of the same configuration lighting the side elevations which both measure three bays across. A single story shed addition spans the rear elevation until it meets a narrow two-story gable addition at the northeast corner. The shed was constructed in 1939 to house a kitchen. Double-hung 1/1 windows light the rear shingled addition. A single corbel cap chimney protrudes from the eastern slope of the gable roof near the rear addition. On the interior the original pulpit was removed in 1903 and replaced with the current stage constructed by the Grange who were permitted use of the hall after they repaired it to suit their purposes. A cupboard was made by H.H. Ashley and placed in the town hall in 1902 to store Grange property.
Horse sheds, constructed in 1912 and originally located between the church and town hall fell in ruins in the 1930's.
3. 1808 Schoolhouse
Facing westward and located east of the Town Hall and adjacent to the Town House Cemetery is the 1808 Schoolhouse, a single story clapboarded structure, its gable front capped by a small gable-roofed cupola and set above a rock wall foundation. The central entrance contains a four panel door capped by a three light transom and flanked by a double-hung 9/6 window on each side. Filling the gable above the doorway is a double-hung window with 6/6 sash. Beneath the slightly projecting eaves, a plain frieze connects to simple cornerboards articulating the building edges. A set of four double-hung 2/2 windows light the south elevation while two individual windows covered by vertical boarded doors are located en the north side. The cupola, perched at the front of the gable roof ridge features square posts supporting a gable roof above a clapboarded square base. It was made by John Franz in 1972 to house the bell from the North Dorchester schoolhouse which was closed in 1926. A small brick chimney is situated on the rear ridge of the asphalt roof. Located at the rear of the schoolhouse is a small shingle-covered ell, lit by several fixed four light windows.
To the northeast of the Town House is a deteriorated shed used to store firewood. Measuring six feet wide, it is sheathed in vertical boards with a metal roof.
A larger shed is located at the rear, situated parallel to the town hall. It too is constructed of vertical boards and has an asphalt roof with an opening on its gable end.
The impression of a town center was previously heightened by the existence of a store next to the schoolhouse, and several other houses in addition to the two which are located north and south of the Dorchester Common Historic District today.
The Dorchester Common Historic District represents a well-preserved example of a traditional rural New England townscape, a unique union of architecture and open space serving as a local center of political, religious, educational and social activity. Unpretentious in design and execution, the buildings illustrate the work of local builders and the simplification of contemporary design vocabularies into vernacular forms.
As seen today, the Dorchester Community Church is the unusual result of an original 1828 design rebuilt in the 1880's and displays vestiges of the architectural styles prevalent in both periods. Embellishment of the church exterior is limited, designed to house the demands and tastes of the various denominations which would use the building. The church remains today an excellent index to the tastes and skills of a rural New Hampshire town. The Dorchester Community Church was individually listed on the National Register of Historic Places on November 25, 1980.
The Town Hall has continuously housed the most fundamental form of democracy, the meeting, since 1844. A town house was first erected on the site in 1828, burned in 1839 and was rebuilt between 1842 and 1843 after appropriations in 1841. Transitional in style, the Town Hall displays blind fans associated with the Federal styles as well as pilasters indicative of the Greek Revival mode.
Built in 1808 for the North School District as one of Dorchester's first four one-room schoolhouses, the schoolhouse was closed in 1936 leaving only one of the ten schoolhouses once serving the town's thirteen school districts. Today, it is the solitary survivor of the first four schoolhouses The building was opened as a historical museum in 1966 to display old desks and schoolbooks in addition to historical documents of the town.
It should be noted that the church, school and town hall are all contained within a local historic district established by the Town of Dorchester in 1980.
Representing as they do religious, governmental and educational concerns, these three buildings symbolize the essential characteristics of the New England village in general and of Dorchester in particular, centralized in the late 19th century. Embodied in each are vernacular versions of high style architecture as interpreted by local builders.
Dorchester Bicentennial Committee, Dorchester, New Hampshire 1772-1972. Dorchester: 1972.
Records of the Dorchester Grange and Community Church, Town Reports, deposited in the Town House, Dorchester.
† Lisa Mausolf, Upper Valley-Lake Sunapee Council, Dorchester Common Historic District, Grafton County, New Hampshire, nomination document, 1984, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.