Looking Back

Courtesy The nurses’ quarters building at the VA Medical Center in Manchester, completed in 1950.

Construction of the new Veterans Administration Hospital in Manchester began on July 1, 1948. The Manchester Evening Leader later recalled how the project started: “The site was covered with second-growth trees and an unusually heavy accumulation of surface boulders. Excavation of both earth and large boulders was sufficiently advanced by the first of September that a token start was made on the concrete foundations. The large amount of boulders and large excavation seriously affected the availability of suitable dirt for finished grading.”

But despite these early challenges, the article reported that “Work progressed very satisfactorily until the construction was completed.”

The plans for this 150-bed general medical and surgical hospital, along with a boiler plant and garage to support it, had been drafted by James H. Ritchie and Associates, one of the top architectural firms in Boston. The general contractor for this part of the project was the George A. Fuller Company, also based in Boston.

In the post-World War II era the requirements for building a new VA hospital went far beyond what would be needed to construct a civilian hospital. In 1946 the average hospital stay for a veteran was 38 days, versus nine days for patients in civilian hospitals. To meet the particular medical and psychological needs of their patients, especially those who had been injured in the war, VA medical complexes were designed to be as self-contained and self-sufficient as possible. With this objective as a major influence, the hospital in Manchester would contain its own laundry, dining facilities and maintenance support services. A giant water tank was installed with the purpose of storing enough water to fight a major fire for three hours without needing to use the city water supply.

This concept of a self-reliant campus incorporated on-site housing for key staff as a necessity. In Manchester, these buildings would include a single-family residence for the manager; two duplex staff residences; a nurses’ quarters; and a male attendants’ dormitory. The office of Faulkner, Kingsbury and Stenhouse of Washington, D.C., was hired to design these structures, with principal architects Waldron Faulkner, Slocum Kingsbury and John Stenhouse. This firm specialized in institutional projects, including hospitals, high schools, museums and university buildings.

For the design of these smaller buildings the architects incorporated modernized design principles that were being expressed in the hospital building. The plans for the dwellings featured strong horizontal elements including symmetrical rows of windows, and the low hip roofs with overhangs typical of prairie-style houses built in the Midwest.

A local contractor, Davison Construction Company, was hired to build the auxiliary buildings. This general contracting and engineering company was a well-established family business with an office in downtown Manchester. The company had worked on several projects for the War Department during World War II, including the construction of a chapel at Fort Ethan Allen, an army installation in northwestern Vermont. The building was designed in a colonial style and it seated 350 people. The construction quartermaster overseeing that project happened to be Capt. Victor S. Phaneuf of Nashua. Davison also completed a defense-related project in Aroostook County, Maine, and several in New Hampshire, including building two administration buildings at Camp Langdon in New Castle, part of the fortification system protecting Portsmouth Harbor.

In 1948 the company was awarded a contract from the Nashua Housing Authority for a 100-unit affordable housing project. This was the O.S. Maynard Homes complex, now known as Wagner Court. Also, that year Davison was hired to build a nurses’ residence and an infirmary building at the New Hampshire State Hospital in Concord. Both structures now house state executive department offices.

The Davison Construction Company started its work at the VA hospital site on April 15, 1949, and finished in May 1950. In an ad published in the Manchester Evening Leader on July 1, 1950, on the eve of the hospital’s dedication ceremony, the company included this statement: “We hope that in completing these attractive and useful structures, we will have added to the comfort and early recovery of those to whom we owe so much ... so that they may once more take their rightful places in the life of their communities.”

Next week: Dr. George O. Pratt, the man who pulled it all together.

Aurore Eaton is a historian and writer in Manchester, contact her at auroreeaton@aol.com or at www.facebook.com/AuroreEatonWriter