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Home | Looking Back with Aurore Eaton

The Harrington-Smith Block — an architectural masterpiece

July 14. 2014 8:05PM

After the death of former Mayor of Manchester Edward W. Harrington in July 1876, his widow Margaret continued to live in the family’s comfortable home on Hanover Street, along with her young adult children, Edward W. Harrington Jr. and Delana B. Harrington. In 1880, Delana married Samuel Fray Curtis, a native of Hatfield, Massachusetts. Samuel managed a clothing store on Elm Street. By that year Edward, a clerk in his father’s bank, had married Cora E. Smith, who was originally from Starks, Maine.

Around this time Hillsborough, New Hampshire, industrialist, banker, and future New Hampshire Governor John Butler Smith entered into a partnership with Manchester businessman Alfred D. Quimby. The two men developed an ambitious plan to build a business block on Hanover Street that would contain a grand theater — the biggest the city had ever seen. They bought the church building and land owned by the First Congregational Church on the north side of the street, about 100 feet east of Elm Street. The congregation had moved into a new church on the corner of Hanover and Union streets in 1879.

When Alfred Quimby decided to back out of the project, Edward Harrington Jr. saw a promising opportunity for investing his family’s fortune, and became John Smith’s new partner. They agreed to build the block in three sections — a commercial building on the west end (owned by the Harringtons), a second commercial building on the east end (owned by John Butler Smith), and a theater between the two buildings owned by a separate corporation.

The Manchester Opera House Company was formed in early 1880 to finance and manage the theater. Edward Harrington Jr. and John Smith were charter stockholders, along with Delana Curtis and Margaret Harrington. Other early investors included industrialist Frank P. Carpenter, former Mayor Alpheus Gay, hosiery manufacturer Abraham P. Olzendam, and other prominent local figures. At the company’s first meeting in February 1880, Edward Harrington was named treasurer, and he would later become the Opera House’s manager.

John T. Fanning was hired as the designer. He was a nationally-known hydraulic engineer who had also been trained as an architect. John had come to Manchester in 1872 to create Manchester’s new water system that would establish Lake Massabesic as the municipal water source. This tremendous effort was completed in 1874, but John stayed on in Manchester for several more years. While living in the city he consulted on hydraulic projects in Boston and New York, and published an important book on hydraulic and water supply engineering.

In addition to his brilliant work on the Harrington-Smith block, John Fanning demonstrated his considerable architectural skills by designing the brick pumping station on Cohas Brook for the Manchester water works, and the First Congregational Church building on Hanover Street, both in the Gothic-Revival style. After leaving Manchester in 1885, John went on to tackle hydraulic projects in several midwestern and southern states, and in Washington, D.C. Despite his obvious architectural genius, it appears that he never again worked as an architect.

John Fanning designed the Harrington-Smith Block (also called the Opera House Block) in the exuberant Queen Anne commercial style. This is the best example of this style remaining in Manchester. The 200-foot-wide building rests on a split granite foundation. An estimated 2 million bricks were used in its construction, with fine red-pressed brick used on the exterior. The symmetrical façade has the light and lively appearance typical of the Queen Anne style because of the variety of contrasting building materials used, and the playful floral ornamentation. The construction details included Nova Scotia sandstone trim, cast iron columns, decorative buff-colored bricks, pressed sheet metal, red matte terra cotta medallions (in diamond and circular shapes), and red slate.

The building project was completed in January 1881. As the “Mirror and American” newspaper commented, “The erection of substantial and at the same time ornamental business blocks are the very best of business thermometers indicating as they do the degree of business activity and financial prosperity which prevails in the community…The new Opera House block…stands as a conspicuous ornament in the city…It is grand and sincere, and possesses the advantage of having been planned by one of the ablest and most imaginative architects in the State.”

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Next Week: A Valley Cemetery Story — The new Manchester Opera House amazes everyone!

Aurore Eaton is a historian and writer in Manchester, e-mail her at

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