The Geography of Us

10/18/2006


By: Karen Marzloff
Date: Wednesday, Oct 18, 2006
Publication: The Wire

There's no doubt that downtown Portsmouth is blessed by its sense of place.

Visitors arriving from the broad lanes of I-95 are immediately slowed into the embrace of narrow, curving streets lined with tightly packed brick buildings punctuated by trees, pocket gardens and expanses of open sky. One-way streets smoothly funnel cars through Market Square, calming traffic for pedestrians passing in and out of ground level shops and cafes. Offices residences occupy the second and third floors above. Train horns sound in the distance, and the briny air reminds us that the harbor is always just around the corner.

Thirty years ago, this scene was very different. Market Square was an expanse of asphalt with traffic pouring in and out. Windows were boarded over with plywood and distinctive brick facades were covered with vinyl siding.

"The auto was king, and renovation was 'take the path of least resistance,'" says John Rice, chair of Portsmouth's Historic District Commission and a lifelong resident. "Take the least expensive route. Pop out windows if they fail, put in vinyl windows with no distinctive features. You erode the character bit by bit and end up with a very sterile downtown, which was dying."

In the mid-1970s, with some help from federal block grants and inspiration from residents, city planners redesigned Market Square as a pedestrian friendly gathering spot. The city hired a municipal architect and even offered free architectural design services to property owners willing to restore their storefronts.

"When Market Square revived, it sparked a renaissance that carried over to the arts, to Theatre-by-the-Sea and the revitalization of Ceres Street with the addition of restaurants like the Dolphin Striker, the Ferry Landing, the Oar House," Rice says.

Now, the city of 20,700 people, at the heart of one of the fastest growing regions in the country, is faced again with similarly dramatic change. This summer, developers added to downtown two of the largest buildings built here since World War II, and in a few weeks the city will celebrate the grand opening of a brand new 38,000-square-foot library. And there's more to come. In the next two years, the city will see an even larger hotel and conference center rise in the Northern Tier, conduct a corridor study for the heavily trafficked Islington Street, and figure out how to re-use the soon-to-be acquired Thomas J. McIntyre federal building in the heart of downtown.

The public debate about how to construct new buildings-where they will go, what they should look like and how they will serve the owners and the community-is going to grow more heated. And while the pitch is highest in Portsmouth, new buildings in downtown Dover-the renovation of the Foster's Daily Democrat building and the waterfront development-raise similar concerns, as does the continued spread of housing developments and commercial strips in neighboring towns.

"Year after year, the projects get larger and more complicated and more expensive and the pressure mounts," Rice says. Passionate arguments take place on the sidewalks, in editorials and letters in the Portsmouth Herald, and behind closed doors. At stake is not just the way we shape our landscape, but the way that landscape will shape us.

finding yourself at the center

The idea of a "sense of place" originates in our minds, says Hanover author and retired Harvard psychology lecturer Margaret Myer. She and her husband John Myer, retired head of the architecture department at MIT, recently collaborated on "People and Places" (published by Peter E. Randall for Sandwich Publications), a unique work that explores the connection between our inner and outer landscapes.

The pair visited Water Street Books in Exeter on a recent Tuesday evening to discuss their work. That afternoon, sitting at an outdoor table in front of Breaking New Grounds in Market Square, they talked about how the ideas in the book apply to the way we experience Portsmouth.

Simply put, when architecture's scale, pattern and function are in harmony with our inner selves and lifelong needs, we feel comfort, security and strength. When it's at odds, purposefully or unintentionally, we feel unsettled.

"There are certain things that, universally, all people care about. As an infant, you need to be attached, to be contained, to have continuity of care. And those are all concepts that can go into a place," Margaret Myer says.

The Myers go beyond exploring how buildings can express, seek or elicit feelings. They explain the "why," by connecting architecture with Erik Erikson's theories of human development.

"What's important for a child to experience stays with it forever. That's why it's important for places to have certain qualities we respond to. For example, an important thing in your first phase of life is containment. It turns out that places that don't have containment are very threatening to us," Margaret says.

"Autonomy is another one," she continues. "We love to see a little kid who goes off on his own-well, parents don't, they call it 'the terrible twos.' And if a child doesn't have chance to express that, he feels very subordinated. I think when you see Nazi architecture, that's what people feel. They want you to feel that way," Margaret says.

Among the things the Myers immediately noted in Portsmouth were a sense of containment, expressed by curbs, trees, sheltering awnings and streetscapes that, for the most part, only extend two or three blocks before ending in a curve and a view of a building. Along the way are benches, tables and chairs that create opportunities for conversation and a sense of ease.

"People aren't just walking through. They're hanging in," John observes.

"Also, as you come in, when you get within half a block of here, you know you're at the center. And that's a very exciting feeling. I knew right where I was. And when you know where you are, that's a good feeling," Margaret says. Contributing to that sense of center, she says, is the consistency of the buildings, in scale and in the use of brick.

In architectural references that spread from one building to the next-the stacked corner stones, called quoins, that run up the edges of some buildings, or the graceful bends of brick corners -there's continuity among the buildings. And in the dates inscribed in horizontal lintels above our doors, in the worn bricks, layers of paint, iron stair rails, brick chimneys rising from slightly concave lines of peaked roofs, there's a gentle sense of decay that links us to the ongoing chain of humanity.

The orientation of Bow and Ceres streets toward the water and the North Church spire that orients us to the heart of Market Square connect us to the places where those who came before sustained themselves and found fellowship. All these elements conspire to create a feeling that Portsmouth is a living place, infused with a sense of creativity, autonomy and industry. These things give the city an identity as singular as any one of us would wish for ourselves.

The city's success is that rather than adapt to modern times, John Myers notes, "I think modern times have been constrained to adapt to it. With the exception of the cars, this is very much as it was a hundred years ago. Modern times hasn't made a brand new glossy, flashy thing that has no sense of place.

"Here, it's very individual, we're not just anyplace," Margaret agrees.

growing pains

The Historic District Commission's best work is largely invisible to the community at large. When a store owner uses a roll-up canvas awning instead of a fixed aluminum or plastic shell, there's an authenticity that we feel while walking under it, although we might not be able to say why.

"They don't garner the same attention as some of the bigger projects, and part of why they're so successful is that people don't know they're there. They blend into our community and they seem like they fit," says Ellen Fineberg, president of the city's cultural commission and also a member of the Historic District Commission. The HDC's job is to review exterior changes to buildings and structures located within the Historic District, under guidelines established in the city's Master Plan.

But as the group has been called upon to work on larger, more contentious projects, they've been nicknamed "the taste police" by some. They've been criticized for exercising too much control, by drawing out approvals on some projects for up to a year and requiring architects to adhere too rigorously to 19th century appearances. And they've been criticized for not exercising enough control, for allowing buildings to merely imitate their predecessors without quality materials or actual style. One of the city's newest buildings is 10-20 Congress Street, a five-story mixed use building designed by Portsmouth architect Steve McHenry. Both McHenry and the HDC credit the project's swift four-month approval to in-depth work on the architect's part.

"We wanted to allow them into the design process earlier than we normally would," McHenry says. They started with a matrix that showed 20 different versions of general massing options, some that were four stories and some that were five, some that were a single building and others that were multiple buildings. "We did this in concert with showing contextual photographs and photos of buildings for several blocks around the area. Not that they weren't familiar, but to make sure we demonstrated what we had gone through in the process of trying to balance what's appropriate there in terms of scale." The work resulted in one building that has the appearance of three, with various rooflines that respect the weight of the North Church on one side and marry with the Odd Fellows building on the other. Residents have applauded the wide sidewalks in front that continue the spirit of Market Square.

The city's other new attraction is the 131-room Hilton Garden Inn and attached Harbour Hill Condominiums, a block away at the border of the Northern Tier, designed by Portsmouth architect Lisa DeStefano.

At the Hilton Garden Inn and Harbour Hill Condominiums, there was less of a neighborhood to reference. The hotel's pretty entrance is scaled to match the flanking historic wood homes of The Hill neighborhood. At the opposite end of the building, the five-story condominium section abuts a wide parking lot and the Parade Office Mall. Running from one end of the building to the other, a long, steep, flat six-story façade faces the blank wall of the municipal parking garage.

DeStefano had to maintain the hotel's requirements for a 130-room facility with rooms and windows of a certain size, and try to design within the context of the neighborhood, which had very little existing architectural identity. "When we designed that, we were taking into account the future development of the Parade Mall site, when there are other buildings fronting Hanover Street of the same size and scale, you'll have a street of five-story buildings that will all fit into context with each other," she says.

the Northern Tier

The HDC is currently working with HarborCorp LLC to finalize details for a 200-room Westin hotel, conference center and 650-space parking garage at the intersection of Deer and Russell Streets, as part of an expansion to the nearby Sheraton Harborside. The project will be a landmark in redeveloping the Northern Tier. Also soon to be on the HDC's docket is a plan for the site of the current Portsmouth Herald building at 111 Maplewood Ave., just a block away from the Westin project.

Architecturally speaking, there's "nothing to hang your hat on" in this sprawling, vaguely industrial area, notes John Rice. It's within the Historic District, but, a victim of misguided urban renewal in the 1970s, it looks like a poor relation. In a 1996 study, the city concluded that future development should create second city center here that reflect's the successes of Market Square. The HDC has held meetings with the other city boards to get an understanding of what's expected from them in their design review of new projects here.

"Obviously what goes up on the Portsmouth Herald site is going to have to pick up to a certain degree some elements from the new hotel and conference center. And yet a signer of the Declaration of Independence is in that graveyard across the street-you want to preserve sense of place, that timelessness. So how do you mesh the two? That's probably our biggest challenge as a community," Rice says.

The city also uses tools other than architecture to shape its future.

Rick Taintor is a consultant who helped the city write its recently approved Master Plan. The next phase is to take the goals and objectives-all that talk about corridors, about neighborhoods, about sense of place-and incorporate them into the zoning ordinance.

"You can actually plan for a lot," he says. The same kind of comprehensive plan that the city developed for the Northern Tier in 1996 will be developed for the nearby Islington Street Corridor.

"We'll be considering building heights. You could choose a minimum building height of two stories to make development more intense in one area. You could require main entrances to face the sidewalk, a certain percentage of the first floor to be windows. There's a whole variety of things you can do," Taintor says. That, in turn, will influence the architecture. The Islington Street artery is connected to downtown, but is not part of the Historic District.

"This is a deciding point, maybe. A lot of decisions considered in the city have been in respect to preserving historic character and to a certain extent imitating historic character. I think we're opening up the discussion on how to be thinking about other ways the city can promote design that isn't necessarily historic restoration or replication, something that is positive for people and the town to see," he says.

The city plans to hold public meetings on the zoning ordinance changes in the spring of 2007, in preparation for City Council consideration in June.

the only constant is change It may not be just the scale of the new projects that bothers people. The Harbour Hill Condominiums were priced at $400,000 to $1.3 million. The new Hilton Garden Inn and Sheraton expansion-which includes in its budget $15 million of public funds for a parking garage-are for visitors and will not benefit the average resident. And no matter how skillfully they're designed, hotels, parking garages and conference centers do not represent architecture of the type that shaped the city's sense of place: locally owned businesses, and residences for people who work in them.

The new buildings symbolize a break from our past that's particularly felt by longtime residents. For an array of economic reasons, there are no longer gas stations, pharmacies, hardware stores, video stores or mid-size markets downtown. The working port, with its piles of salt and scrap metal, has become a powerful symbol for those who treasure the city's fading blue-collar heritage. And there's a particular concern that the artists who helped revitalize public life during the early 1980s have been forced out by so-called condominiumization.

Roger Goldenberg is an artist with a studio in the Button Factory on Islington Street. He recently concluded a term on the board of Art-Speak, the city's cultural commission.

"I wanted to see if I could help effect change so that artists could stay here, because they had become as important a part of the community as the fishermen, as the shipbuilders at the Navy Yard, and the myriad of other people who make up the community," he says. "I think as there's more and more money coming into the community, the community is going to become more and more generic. The grittiness of it, the making of it, the ability to afford to experiment, some of the dynamism is going to be lost, and that's a shame."

There's also been a switch in the economy. During various eras, the city's economic engine has been located in the port, in the Navy Yard across the river, in breweries and factories along Islington Street, at Pease Air Force Base, or in the promise of commercial development along Woodbury Ave.

"The economy changes, and communities have to respond to that," says Portsmouth Economic Development Director Nancy Carmer. "You can't just have the architecture without the sense of community that goes with it, and the pride in the community," she says. But that community needs to be adaptable. "If there is no growth, what happens to our sense of place? Does everybody just say 'I'm here, I like it, I don't want to see any change'? I don't think that's possible."

Last summer the HDC held an symposium, inviting architects to come speak about their concepts. John Rice describes it as "really fun."

"Our objective was to keep our mouth shut and listen. Our keynote speaker, Max Ferro, said that when it comes to historic districts, the best thing an architect can do is leave their imagination at the door and just be repetitive. Having said that, the other architects (from Portsmouth) were anything but that," he laughs. He hopes to repeat the symposium in the summer of 2007.

Architect Steve McHenry, who proposed a fairly contemporary building for a site on Bridge Street in Portsmouth, at the farthest edge of the Historic District, is one of those who says we should go forward with a little less fear and a greater sense of adventure and opportunity. Only in that way will we be able to encourage the best designers to be involved in planning our future.

"I think there's a younger generation, they just can't get over that we have to keep designing buildings that look like 19th century buildings. It can be frustrating for them, and it eventually will be (too frustrating)," he says.

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