Gasholder, piece of industrial past, faces uncertain future

AP News
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Posted: Oct 07, 2015 12:35 AM
Gasholder, piece of industrial past, faces uncertain future

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — A round, red-brick relic of this country's industrial transformation sits shakily at the southern entrance to New Hampshire's capital city, the cupola atop its conical, tree-damaged roof slumping northward.

Built in 1888, the Concord gasholder building is believed to be the last of its clan in the United States with its interior works intact, a monument to a turning point in how people lived and worked: By forcing coal gas through pipes to homes and businesses, the gas works meant people were no longer captive to candles or oil lamps. Businesses could run three shifts; people could read, gather or walk the streets more safely deep into the night with a steady source of illumination.

After the roof was damaged during a storm in 2013, the building was temporarily repaired and now historians and preservation experts worry that without permanent repairs — and soon — the building is doomed to the rubble pile.

"This was a technical revolution," said Jim Garvin, the retired state architectural historian. "This is a unique survivor in the United States."

Current owner Liberty Utilities is weighing whether to repair, demolish or sell it. Demolition looks to be three or four times cheaper than repairing it, but the preliminary cost estimates don't address cleaning up coal tar contamination beneath the building, company spokesman John Shore said. An intact building will continue to act as a cap over the pollution; tearing the building down means cleaning up the site.

"I want to stress it's not our desire to destroy the building," Shore said. "We want to work with the city, the preservation group and any other interested parties."

Whatever the cost, Liberty's ratepayers would pay some of it. Cost estimates could be finalized by the end of October.

"We're not in a rush to make any impactful decision," Shore said. "We're going to carefully weigh our options."

By the 1850s, just about every medium- and small-sized city in the country had a gasholder building and the distinctive, cylindrical exteriors can still be seen in places like Troy and Saratoga Springs in New York. The gasholder worked this way: Coal gas was pumped into a wrought-iron, 80,000-pound tank that floated atop water. The tank rose and fell based on how much gas was present and the weight of the tank provided constant pressure to force the gas out through pipes where it was distributed to the public.

"The only kind of illumination that people had until the advent of electricity was illuminating gas," said Garvin. "This was the first major change from candles and oil lamps into a municipally-scaled or industrially-scaled illuminating source."

The building has been mothballed since 1952. Liberty bought it in 2012.

It can't be reused because of the contamination but Garvin said it can still serve as a living exhibit with outdoor signage and educational material often seen at national historical sites.

After the building was damaged in 2013, the New Hampshire Preservation Alliance put it on its Seven to Save list. Maggie Stier, field services representative for the alliance, said the building's fate is generating plenty of buzz.

"They can see that this building really is too important to lose," she said.

She compares the leaning cupola — legend suggests it was knocked off kilter during the great New England hurricane of 1938 — to another famed and now-fallen structure: The Old Man of the Mountain rock formation that met its demise in 2003.

"I don't think you can ignore that," she said. "It's another point of pride."