Editorial: 50 Years After the Great Lebanon Fire
The recent Valley News series on the great Lebanon fire of 1964 recalled a time of small, friendly shops, a place “where everyone knew everyone,” an era when life seemed predictable. On June 20 of that year, Lebanon High School alumni would march around the green and locals would turn out to watch. Honor guards would carry the American flag, parade watchers would cover their hearts with their hands and men would take off their hats in respect.
But the fire killed two and destroyed or damaged 22 businesses on alumni day, changing the way downtown Lebanon looked and felt. Fifty years later, the fire remains a fixed point in memory, a moment from which to take the measure of downtown Lebanon.
After the fire, city officials voted to rebuild with the help of federal funds, and replaced a section of Hanover Street with a then-trendy pedestrian mall. The mall did not find quick success, perhaps hampered by its relatively small size and a design quirk — it empties into a parking lot, a rather inglorious ending. For many years, some residents resented the change and refused to shop there, saying the City Council had gone against the will of the voters. By the 1980s, the mall was starting to look a bit shabby.
Time makes many things clearer: The automobile changed the way people lived and shopped, and retailers were almost certainly going to move to the Miracle Mile and the interstate jungle of Route 12A no matter what. Western Auto, McNeill’s Drug, Woolworth’s, Hildreth’s Hardware — they are all gone, and the mall is not the culprit.
Vitality returned to downtown Lebanon, slowly, through public and private investment, and a series of fortunate events. The conversion of the Hotel Rogers into subsidized senior housing preserved a handsome centerpiece. The attractive AVA Gallery and Art Center in the old Carter & Sons factory shows how the arts can enhance the community. The Witherell Recreation Center offers abundant swimming and fitness programs. Lebanon College turned the old Woolworth’s into classroom space. After some failures, restaurants succeeded downtown, and when city officials put aside their doubts and allowed outdoor seating, the restaurants brought more life to the mall. Summer concerts and farmers markets in Colburn Park; entertainment at the Lebanon Opera House; the Northern Rail Trail; road races — all these bring people downtown.
It is fashionable in some circles to say that government can do no right, but in downtown Lebanon, the city, with the help of businesses and nonprofits, has succeeded. Fifty years after the fire, the story is not one of loss. Route 12A has become the home of major retailers, but downtown Lebanon has become a place to leave the car behind — to stroll, chat, take a class, enjoy a meal.
In a time when traffic, gas prices and environmental angst have made driving much less of an adventure, and a sputtering economy dulls the appeal of recreational shopping, the things that the downtown offers may only become more attractive. Time will tell, as it always does.