From the street, the old house looks weary after standing vacant for five years. Construction fencing encircles the building, its rotted porch off limits.
Despite the distinctive shapes of the turret, gables and sculpted faces on the chimney tops, years of changes to the exterior have chipped away at the 19th-century mansion’s historic character.
But beyond the disused front door is an unexpected time capsule of Manchester’s early industrial boom, a Victorian reflection of the Millyard’s heyday. There are striking stained-glass windows and sweeping woodwork that stretches from floor to ceiling and along a grand two-flight staircase. Glittering stamped wallpaper adorns the foyer, and ornate plasterwork scrolls across the ceiling of the old parlor.
The building is the George Byron Chandler House, at 147 Walnut St., now officially the property of the Currier Museum of Art.
The Currier purchased the property for $150,000 from the Catholic Diocese of Manchester, which in recent years had considered selling it before finally applying for a city demolition permit last June.
“The idea is that the house really belongs to the community,” said Alan Chong, the Currier’s director and chief executive officer.
The sale became final on Feb. 10, but in many ways the work has just begun. Next comes fundraising and project planning for more than $1 million in restoration work.
It’s both doable and daunting, Chong said.
Over the past five years, countless people and groups have weighed in on the house’s fate, from the grassroots Save the Chandler House initiative to the New Hampshire Preservation Alliance, which put the mansion on its Seven to Save list in 2015.
Manchester Mayor Joyce Craig, Alderman Will Stewart and the diocese’s Rev. Jason Jalbert helped navigate options and recent negotiations.
“It would have been a huge loss for the city had it been demolished,” said Craig, who grew up in Manchester. “I remember back in 2015-16, the city lost the Hill-Lassonde house that was located at 269 Hanover St. It hit home with me and others in the community and rallied a lot of us to do everything we could to make sure (the Chandler House) was preserved.”
A monumental effort
It took a groundswell of community support to broker a future for the mansion, and it will take another to see the Chandler House through a two-year restoration project to transform the first floor into a museum for public tours, the basement into classrooms and the upper two floors into office space.
The house joins the Currier’s spreading Queen City footprint, which includes the main museum, founded in the 1920s, and two Frank Lloyd Wright houses — the Zimmerman House and the Kahlil House — built in the 1950s.
Restoration of the Chandler House hasn’t yet been mapped or put out to bid. Chong said the first priorities are the electrical, plumbing and heating systems. Right now, accordion-looking tubing snakes through the first floor, delivering warm air into the house until the broken heating system can be replaced.
Leading a visitor through the house, Chong points out architectural treasures the Currier hopes to preserve and areas that need to be repaired, renovated or replaced.
By the time he gets to the third floor, he laughingly complains of buyer’s remorse.
“I think I’m going to have to sit down soon,” he says, feigning a faint.
In the beginningThe oldest part of the mansion was built in 1865-66. It was nearly a mirror image of a house that stood just across Beech Street, on what is today the site of the Currier Museum.
Gov. Moody Currier and George Byron Chandler were officials at Amoskeag Bank and bought their properties on the same day in 1863, across from each other, Chong said.
Originally, the houses were almost identical — square Italianate with cupolas on top, Chong said.
“It’s like they were best buddies at work and at home. They built almost identical houses to one another,” Chong said.
Currier’s widow, Hannah Slade Currier, insisted her house be torn down to erect the museum, Chong said.
“There are hardly any photographs and documentation” of the Currier house, Chong said.
There’s a dividing line between the oldest and less ornate part of the house and the 1888 addition that more than doubled the mansion’s size. Walk through an outdated, utilitarian kitchen, and the small hallway opens into a grand foyer. Everything in the sweeping space seems framed like pieces of art by intricate woodwork and stained glass.
In a side room that was the library are mahogany and cherry pocket doors, more stained glass and a fireplace built into an elaborate wall of woodwork with curving bench seats.
“It was massive for the 19th century and very expensive for the time,” Chong said. “We’re going to take it back to its heyday, between 1888 and 1905.”
Chandler died in 1905, and his widow sold the mansion to the diocese in 1915. Over the decades, it has been home to three bishops, a monastery and a convent connected to the adjacent St. Hedwig’s Parish.
A public purpose
Patricia Meyers, a longtime cultural advocate and supporter of the Currier and community, remembers visiting the mansion on a house tour a handful of years ago.
“The nuns were still in residence. They were clearly proud of the (historic house) and were taking such good care of it. The place was polished to within an inch of its life on the first floor. There wasn’t much in the way of furnishings, but the workmanship was just so beautiful. Buildings really are a sort of tangible evidence of our stories.”
Kate Marquis, one of the founding members of the Save the Chandler House group, is glad the building will be public rather than private.
“A lot of ideas were thrown around early on — condos, developed as office space, but everything in those scenarios was private use,” she said. “The Currier came along with us on that process and in doing so fell in love with it and saw its potential for the community – just as much as we did. This outcome makes the restoration and preservation public.”
In one third-floor room, fingers of paint flakes hang from the ceiling in what is thought to have originally been the billiard room.
Decorative pieces of woodwork from various parts of the house rest in a small pile on the floor to be repaired and reused. One soccer-ball sized piece is from a column.
“Andrew (Spahr, the Currier’s director of curatorial affairs) was poking at something and it fell off in his hands,” Chong said. “He has vast experience, but it was still very funny. You can quote that. He’s still getting teased about it.”
To donate to the restoration process, visit currier.org.