Office Helps Keep NH’s Past Alive

SEA member Mary Kate Ryan works at the Division of Historical Resources.

History is all around at the state’s Division of Historical Resources, in files and books, and in the building itself.

Historical Resources, which is part of the Department of Cultural Resources, is housed in the last remaining building of what was Pillsbury Hospital, located on Pillsbury Street, just off South Main St. in Concord. The hallways are lined with file cabinets, and the patient rooms, complete with doors wide enough for gurneys to fit through, have been converted to offices. Making good use of a historical space, as it turns out, is just what Historical Resources aims to help Granite Staters do.

Mary Kate Ryan, a historian at Historical Resources and an SEA member, said the division works with residents to keep pieces of the state’s past in use.

“We try to help people manage the historic resources in their town that they think are important and make them as useful as possible in the 21st century, even if they were built in the 18th,” Ryan said.

One way of highlighting the importance of a site is by adding it to the state register of historic places. In fact, without residents pointing out what’s important, there would be no state register at all. That’s because, like the historic marker program, the state register is citizen driven.

“If we don’t have a marker, it’s because no one ever thought there should be one,” Ryan said.

Ryan said keeping beloved structures in use is essential. To do this, her office helps residents access grants to do things such as restorations or energy upgrades.

“A building a community loves can always find a new use,” she said. “There’s always a need for a space for people to work in or gather in.”

Making use of older buildings puts less of a strain on resources, she said, and is more affordable than building from scratch.

“Historic buildings are made out of great sustainable materials, like brick and timber,” she said. “They’re things that can last for a really long time.”

Ryan spends time working in the field, which means visiting many of these historical sites around the state. One such site is the Freedom Village Store, in tiny Freedom.  The store, in the center of Freedom, isn’t exactly easy to stumble across – “you have to take two turns off the main roadway,” Ryan said. The store makes great use of a longtime store space, and serves as a nice gathering spot for people in town. What they want now, is to get more people there. Ryan said that’s another area where her office can help.

“We talked to them about documenting the history of that building and how their store is part of this long tradition of stores,” she said.

In doing so, the store can get publicity through being added to the state register of historic places. Perhaps as importantly, they’ll be able to quickly tell people the history of their building.

“The nice thing about the state register is it’s a good bit of research about your building and how it physically stands today, but it also gives you a summary at the end: This is why this is significant,” she said. “That can help change people’s perceptions about why these pieces of history are important.”

While history may not always strike people as an exciting topic, Ryan said she finds people are still interested in her work.

“It’s easy to talk about the things I do because anyone who’s lived in New Hampshire for a while, they have a story about their town, or about how people from away are moving into their town and ruining it,” she said. “But there’s always a story.”

“That’s kind of what we do. We take peoples stories and we tie them to places.”

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