Out of the Ashes: 1964 Blaze Cleared Way for Pedestrian Mall, Unloved at First but Now Robust
Diners eat lunch outside the Salt Hill Pub along the Mall in Lebanon, N.H., on June 19, 2014.
Valley News - Jennifer Hauck
McNeill's in downtown Lebanon, N.H., was among the 22 businesses lost in a fire on June 19, 1964. (Courtesy Lebanon Historical Society)
The reconfigured downtown Lebanon, N.H., mall in an undated photograph. (Valley News photograph)
The Lebanon, N.H., pedestrian mall in an undated photograph. (Valley News photograph)
Part 3 of 3. Visit the series homepage at www.vnews.com/lebanonfire.
Lebanon — When the embers of the 1964 fire cooled, two people were dead, 22 businesses in downtown had been destroyed or damaged, and the city was faced with the momentous decision of how to rebuild its downtown.
Driven both by federal money and what was then in vogue among city planners, Lebanon officials opted to transform what was a traditional downtown commercial street into a pedestrian mall.
The decision proved not just difficult but also immensely controversial; in fact, some of the bitterness engendered lingers a full half-century later.
Although the downtown mall is a far cry from what was envisioned back in the ‘60s, it has achieved a measure of success. In that respect, the mall that arose from the ashes of the devastating fire stands in stark contrast to most of the other downtown pedestrian malls created in that era. The overwhelming majority were costly failures and are no longer around.
Lebanon’s mall has defied the odds and survived — not as the thriving shopping area the block was in the 1950s, but as a workable mix of tenants who attract customers seeking an education, arts training, health care, specialty items or a place to get a bite to eat.
Gone from downtown, in favor of Route 12A or elsewhere in the Upper Valley, are such core retail businesses as the hardware stores, auto parts and repair shops, and grocery and department stores that occupied the block before the fire. They’ve been replaced by restaurants and stores for bicycles, shoes, flowers and Asian food. The mall’s anchor tenant is Lebanon College, which fills the old Woolworth’s building and others along much of the north side where Dartmouth-Hitchcock Women’s Health also is located.
For those seeking ballet lessons and supplies, as well as instruction on healing arts, yoga and both Japanese and Brazilian jujitsu, the mall is the place to go. And for those living and working in downtown Lebanon, it’s also the most convenient place to grab a beer, have a pizza, sit down for an Italian or Chinese meal or get some diner food.
After the June 19, 1964, fire, most of the stores on the old Hanover Street block reopened, either in the same spot or after relocating to other parts of the Upper Valley. Hirsch’s Lebanon Army Navy Store, which relocated to another part of downtown after being burned out, is one of the few retailers that survived the fire and remains open today.
Damages were estimated to be greater than $3 million — about $23 million in today’s dollars. Lebanon was declared a federal disaster area, which made the city eligible for urban renewal money.
A number of rebuilding plans emerged, but the one that received support of the lame-duck City Council in December 1965 called for closing the burned portion of Hanover Street to vehicle traffic and making the block a pedestrian mall. Under the plan, which was called B-1, traffic would be rerouted around Colburn Park and a new bridge would be built over the Mascoma River.
In response to urban sprawl and the growth of suburban shopping malls that were sweeping the country in the late 1960s and ‘70s, downtown pedestrian malls were all the rage with municipal planners, who saw them as the way to revive abandoned city centers. More than 200 were developed nationwide, according to 2013 a research paper presented at Fresno State University.
The hope was that the Hanover Street mall would give new life to Lebanon’s retail businesses and would reverse the trend of shoppers moving away from downtown.
The new City Council that was sworn in at the beginning of 1966 was of a different mind than the previous body, and its members decided to let Lebanon voters weigh in on the issue. In a referendum held in April of that year, 47 percent of the city’s registered voters turned out and soundly rejected the mall plan, with almost 60 percent saying “no.” The council took the cue and decided to kill the mall. But that wasn’t the last word on the matter.
Under the threat of losing $1.7 million in federal funds, two council members who earlier had opposed the mall plan changed their minds and voted to approve it.
Four years later, and six years after the fire, the $4 million pedestrian mall opened.
Traffic patterns were changed, and new parking lots were created within an easy walk of the downtown stores. But the mall had two problems: Most of the storefronts were no longer visible to motorists, who saw only the backs of the buildings. That may have led to a drop in business for some of the merchants. And the closing of Hanover Street was still a sore spot for the Lebanon residents who had voted against the mall and felt betrayed by the City Council’s action. The lingering resentment also may have kept some customers away.
Ed Ashey, now the city’s historian, moved to Lebanon with his parents when he was a child, around 1940. He was working at the Western Auto store on Hanover Street on the day of the fire and well remembers its lasting impact on the city.
It was “a foolish act that caused a lot of devastation, the most disastrous thing that ever happened in Lebanon,” he said.
“It just changed Lebanon after that. From the 1940s to the 1960s, everything was the same — the stores and streets were all the same — everyone knew everybody, if not by name, then by sight. After the fire, when they built the mall, it almost divided the town. It wasn’t as friendly. ... When I lived on Mascoma Street, I knew families up and down the street. The same families lived there for (decades). Now, I don’t know half the people.”
The six-year delay between the fire and the opening of the mall, the disruption of commerce and the controversy surrounding the mall all contributed to the loss of downtown customers to other parts of the city, said Lois Wood, who was a longtime downtown resident and whose late husband, the physician Myric Wood Jr., documented the fire on film.
“There was a huge conflict over whether to make that mall or put the street back through. It took years before they finally managed to (decide),” she said, and in the meantime, stores were being built on Route 12A in West Lebanon. “Lebanon’s downtown lost a lot of its businesses, not because of the fire, but because of the disagreements (that followed it).”
Although there are no apparent vacancies among the storefronts today, the 44-year-old mall has seen some rough economic times. In addition to its lackluster reception by the public, and even some of its tenants, city officials also have had to fight a number of campaigns seeking to return Hanover Street to the way it was.
There’s no question the 1964 fire was devastating to Lebanon’s downtown shopping district and was a marker of change for the city, but when 21-year-old Albert Healey started the blaze in the old blacksmith’s shed on Mill Street on that hot, dry, windy June afternoon, Hanover Street’s businesses were already beginning to feel the strains of a shifting economy and a move away from a tightly focused retail community.
In addition to the fire, the end of downtown passenger rail service, the closing of downtown mills, a shift in planning philosophies and the birth of interstates 89 and 91 played equal, if not greater, roles in the decline of the central shopping district, planners and historians have said.
“Two events happened in 1964: The fire that destroyed a number of buildings downtown and changed traffic patterns, and the build-out of the Crafts Avenue subdivision (in West Lebanon), the first modern subdivision in Lebanon,” said Andrew Gast-Bray, Lebanon’s director of planning and zoning.
“Those events changed how development and expansion were done, and put the city on a different course. They led to most of the development in the city going to the outskirts rather than the core. They led to isolated single-use buildings that require massive amounts of parking, and prevented tighter, well-planned mixed-use construction.”
After 1964, the thinking among city councilors and planners was that commercial buildings should be spread out so that if one caught fire it wouldn’t threaten others. That thinking, as well as Lebanon’s — and America’s — growing love affair with the automobile, lead to central buildings surrounded by parking lots covering a land mass as large as the downtown area, he said.
Of the more than 200 downtown pedestrian malls that were created across the nation in the last five decades, only about 15 remain open, including the one in Lebanon. The city’s mall and Burlington’s Church Street Marketplace are considered successful, the Fresno State study said.
Certain components are critical to the success of a pedestrian mall, according to the study: the town or city should have a population of under 100,000, the mall should be near or attached to a major anchor, such as a university, and it should be designed to be fairly compact.
Lebanon’s mall meets these criteria.
With its free parking and pedestrian setting, the mall provides an easily accessible home for Lebanon College, and its students often support the other businesses on the mall, said Josh Tuohy, who opened Salt hill Pub on the mall along with his brother Joe in 2003.
“We do a lot of business from Lebanon College during different parts of the day, and we also get people from the hospital,” Tuohy said. “This is a great location for us. Everybody who drives into town stares right at us, and the mall has really cleaned up the last few years.”
The mall had been a magnet for idle teenagers to hang out, smoke and skateboard — all activities that weren’t considered by the merchants to be conducive to business, Tuohy said.
“They didn’t really bother me. I’d go talk to them and treat them with respect, and they found that pretty boring and would move on,” he said, adding that both Salt hill Pub and Three Tomatoes Trattoria across the mall have added outdoor seating that also doesn’t appeal to loiterers.
“There are too many people around for them, now. They’ve gone somewhere else to hang out.”
As a result of its location in the mall, Salt hill is busy at lunch with people who work in the downtown, and the afternoon and evening hours are filled with residents and those attending events at the Opera House, Tuohy said.
“We have customers from their 20s to their 70s,” he said. “It’s really a nice mix. We’re sort of the community gathering place, the community’s living room.”
When Omer and Bob’s was running out of space in Hanover, owner Richard Wallace decided to move to the mall, where he could get the room the store needed and lower his overhead.
“I had some sleepless nights over that decision. I was worried about moving to the mall, but it’s been one the best things we’ve ever done,” Wallace said.
“When we moved here, the mall was a disaster. The retail businesses had really been ignored. The gardens down the mall were a mess, and there was trash around, but it looks quite good now.
“(The move is) really working quite nicely for us. We have customers coming from Hanover and Norwich and from as far away as New London. People tell us now that they never came to the store in Hanover because of the parking and that they find this really convenient. And when they have the farmers market on Thursdays, we’re really busy.”
Efforts to improve business on the mall and to make downtown more vital are continuing, Gast-Bray said.
“We’re not going to reopen the street, but we are going to continue to work to get a broader spectrum of housing types downtown, a mix of affordable workforce housing as well as retirement housing. We’re looking at more multi-purpose zoning all over the city.
“In many ways, we’re still suffering today from the planning that was done 50 years ago in 1964 after the fire. We’re looking for ways to make downtown more vivacious with more people coming and going. It’s a vital part of our community,” he said.
Valley News staff writer Aimee Caruso contributed to this report. Warren Johnston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3216.