I recently found myself traveling along the route I use to walk to school as a young boy every day. I grew up in the city of Manchester during the ’60s and ’70s at a time in which the city was going through many changes. The downtown, which was once the thriving retail and economic hub of the state, was going through a time of “urban renewal.” The once bustling downtown was then for the most part abandoned as the growth of strip malls, food services, and entertainment venues continued along the outskirts of the city. Where once you could stroll through downtown to see a movie, go bowling, have lunch or buy clothes and jewelry, storefronts were abandoned and tumble weeds could be seen crossing the wide expanse of Elm Street.
Ok, so I am being a little dramatic, but the fact remains that what was once an example of the “modern city” at the turn of the century, was now representative of many urban areas throughout the country. To this day there are still many landmark buildings that remain in the city: the Carpenter Library, St. Joseph’s Cathedral, The Institute of Art, First Baptist Church, City Hall, the Masonic Temple, The U.S. Post Office, and many others, but the one that stood out in my mind then, and still does to this day, is the Currier Art Gallery or as it is known today, The Currier Museum of Art.
Back in the early seventies when I first discovered the museum, it was like coming upon an ancient relic that had long since lost its luster. The simple elegant nature of its façade acting as a quiet back drop to the sculptural qualities of the reflecting pond and the surrounding landscape, typical of Italian Renaissance architecture at the time, was still intact. The reflecting pond that once served as a dramatic entrance to the museum off of Orange Street was dried up and empty. The lion’s head that served to fill the pool through its mouth and provide a constant gurgle of water slicing through quiet backdrop of the surrounding residential neighborhood was now silent. It was as if the museum had somehow been placed here from a far and distant land. To a young boy seeing it for the first time, it held an almost mystical aura.
At the time, I wasn’t sure why that building left such an impression on me, but reflecting (no pun intended) upon it now, I think it was just so different than anything I had ever seen or that existed in the city I knew. The building carried me to another time and place far, far away and so out of context to the dark and gritty Manchester landscape that was etched on my memory as a child. I always looked forward to seeing the museum on my walks back and forth from my home in the north end to school every day. That building, that place, transported me in time and set me to dreaming of places I had yet to see. It was, and is still to this day, at least to me, magical.
Edward Lippincott Tilton (1861-1933), was one of the foremost library architects in the country at the time the Currier Gallery was designed. According to Lisa Mausolf in her monograph of Tilton on his architectural practice:, “He was classicist, inspired in his early work by the Italian Renaissance and in his later work by ancient Greece and Rome, and synthesizing classical detail and modern needs. Over twenty years, Tilton designed at least seven structures in Manchester, New Hampshire, and these are the only known buildings that he designed in the state.”
Although he was an architect of considerable note, the Currier was not considered a building that possessed any ground breaking design or technological advances at the time. It was typical of the era, but for me struck a chord that inspired me to pursue a career in architecture, even at the early age of 12. My ties to the museum extend through to my early childhood beyond just the casual reminiscence of a time gone by. As a teenager, my grandparents wished to encourage my penchant for art and design and enrolled me in a summer art class at the Currier in what used to be an art studio adjacent to the museum. I remember those days fondly since art classes were not offered in Catholic Schools. This was my first opportunity to explore the art world and literally for the first time get hands dirty discovering different art mediums. After that summer in 1972, I was convinced that I wanted to do something that involved art and in particular, architecture. I loved to draw and my dad was a carpenter so I spent countless hours by his side learning the trade. Building things, creating something with your own hands, was as magical then as it is now.
We are fortunate to be involved in a career that provides us with a real sense of accomplishment once one of our projects finally comes to fruition. For those of us who are most fortunate, that dream, that idea, that concept that finally comes to life, is enjoyed not only by us and the end users, but by some little boy like myself so many years ago who was inspired by someone else’s dream and transported to a world and place he was yet to discover. n
© AIA New Hampshire