MANCHESTER — The brick buildings line up neatly on a ridge east of the Merrimack River, examples of the gradual expansion of a juvenile reform center the state has operated here since before the Civil War.
The structures offer a glimpse into life early in the 20th Century on property New Hampshire set aside for young offenders as an alternative to prison, opening in 1858 as the House of Reformation for Juvenile and Female Offenders Against the Laws.
Collectively, the buildings are history. Individually, they are old structures that are either boarded-up or used sporadically. They carry a hefty price tag to keep around indefinitely.
Now, after a serious fire at one of them and questions from this newspaper, elected officials are saying it is time to take a new look at the structures.
“Obviously as a state, we want to be good stewards of these historic structures. But at the same time we have to be realistic about the cost we incur mothballing them and the public safety issue that’s there as well,” said Chris Pappas, a Manchester native and an Executive Councilor.
Public safety became more of a concern after last month’s suspected arson fire at the closed Wilkins Cottage.
“I think we’ve got to be sensible going forward and develop a long-range plan for how we’re going to use all the structures on that campus,” Pappas said. Wilkins Cottage and several other buildings were too outdated to fit the plans when the state moved operations at the Youth Development Center into the modern, secure John H. Sununu Youth Services Center in 2006.
The Sununu Center is run by the state Department of Health and Human Services, which includes the Juvenile Justice Division.
In an agreement forged as the state secured federal funds to build the Sununu Center, Wilkins was classified as a structure “contributing” to the overall history of the state-run facility.
Wilkins and other structures that were a significant part of the past were given some protection in the agreement, which called for the DHHS to consult with the Division of Historical Resources on any plans affecting the designated buildings.
It was a costly compromise from any angle. DHHS spokeswoman Kris Neilsen said the 2014 budget allowed $1.8 million for upkeep and maintenance on the remaining buildings from the YDC era that are not part of Sununu Center operations.
The expense of preserving history caught Pappas’ eye last year, his first on the Executive Council, when the lowest bid to repair the brick smokestack at the YDC Boiler House, one of the designated historic structures, came in at over $200,000. Pappas was alarmed again at the total price of a later contract to install an elevator and improve access to the Administrative Building, which opened in 1937.
“They’re expensive to fix,” Pappas said. “But because of the historic designation, that kind of repair needed to be done and it came with a high price tag.”
The historic designation was recognized in a memorandum of understanding signed following a detailed report commissioned by the state. Preservation consultant Elizabeth Durfee Hengen broke down the facility’s history from the initial land purchase in 1855 of farmland once owned by Revolutionary War hero Gen. John Stark and the construction that followed.
The original building was an all-purpose facility when it opened in 1858. It was seriously damaged by a fire in 1865, rebuilt a year later and remained the only non-agricultural building on the campus until 1904, according to the study. The building was destroyed in another fire in 1945, but the South Wing built in the late 19th Century and North Wing that opened in 1907 remain today and fall under the historic designation. The wings are used mostly as office space, Sununu Center director Penny Sampson said.
Others on the list include:
• Riverview Cottage opened as an isolation hospital in 1904 and converted into a boys dormitory in 1912. Hengen noted in the study the building, like Wilkins Cottage, has been unoccupied since the 1970s. Sampson said it is currently used only for storage;
• The Administration Building (1937) is used by Manchester Juvenile Probation and Parole officers and Division for Children, Youth and Families staff, Sampson said;
• Spaulding Cottage, built south of Wilkins in 1927 as a second home for girls, is used by New Hampshire State Police as a training site;
• Pinecrest Cottage (1937) stands high on the ridge between the North Wing and Spaulding, serving as a residential building until the 1980s. Sampson said the Manchester Fire Department has used it for training, but not on a regular basis.
• and a horse barn built early in the 20th Century is home to Manchester Police Department’s two horses — Gen. Stark and Valor.
Pappas said perhaps it is time to review the agreement and evaluate where the state is spending its money.
Meanwhile, the future of Wilkins Cottage remains uncertain. The damage and destruction to the three-story building was apparent from outside the trees surrounding the building and its circular drive about 600 yards up the hill from the Sununu Center. Because it is a state-owned building, the state Fire Marshal’s Office is leading the investigation.
Fire investigator Sean Plumer said the state was still tracking leads and could not comment on a criminal investigation.
Mike Connor, director of planning and property management for the Department of Administrative Services, said structural engineers have been through the Wilkins structure and evaluated the damage. Connor said the state will review the findings and consider what to do next.
Mayor Ted Gastas said he felt the future of the building had already been decided.
“I think that Wilkins is damaged enough that it should be torn down,” Gatsas said.
Boarded-up buildings are prime targets for vandals and Wilkins has had its share of unwelcome visitors over the last 40 years. Just in May, Manchester police were called when a maintenance worker found a door had been pried open. Officers found no one inside and the building was resealed, but a second call came in later that day and responding officers had to let out four people who were stuck inside. No charges were filed and police described the four as juveniles not associated with the Sununu Center.
The fire a few weeks later alarmed residents in Manchester’s North End, an upscale neighborhood just blocks to the east of the Sununu Center property.
“Empty buildings are an invitation to mischief,” said Dick Duckoff, a local historian and member of the North End Neighborhood Association, an organization that fiercely opposed a proposal to convert the property into a women’s prison a few years ago.
“But for the grace of God that there were not heavy winds. Embers could have gone flown anywhere.”