A column on columns: Manchester’s got more columns than, well, than me

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As citizens of the world, we are all heavily indebted to the people of Greece for things like culture, democracy and lamb kabobs, although personally, I am not yet ready to forgive them for the Pythagorean theorem.

Or Metaxa.

Those minor grudges aside, we in Manchester should also be grateful to the Greeks for providing us with so many pillars of the community.

Not the human pillars, mind you. I don’t mean upstanding citizens of Greek ancestry like Employment Security Commissioner George Copadis or Executive Councilor Chris Pappas. Nope, I’m talking about the other kind of pillars; the kind that hold up buildings and porches.

That makes this a column about columns.

(For the record, I know that pillars are square and columns are round. Give me a little linguistic latitude, will you please?)

ColumnsModesty prevents me from taking credit for this clever column-column notion. Blame it on long-time Parkside Junior High School social studies teacher James Brown, who probably thought he was committing an innocent act of education when he once asked his students to find different examples of structural columns here in the city.

This is the kind of wholesome homework assignment that brings parents and children together – generally with their hands at each other’s throats – since the student normally remembers this assignment at 9 p.m. the night before it is due. That’s what my daughter once did, anyway.

So there we were, father and daughter, madly compiling a compendium of columns, and I am happy to report that we – sorry, she – got a 93 on her paper. Meanwhile, as I anxiously await the results of our French test, I have become obsessed with our community’s columns.

Everywhere I turn, there are hundreds, nay, thousands of architectural-type columns scattered throughout the city. They’re a staple on stately homes. For starters, check out North Elm Street. Then slide up to Hanover Hill. Swing on over to Coolidge Avenue – which we West Siders used to refer to as the French Riviera – then start your own random search. As for me, I keep veering into on-coming traffic as I scope them out through my side window.

You might expect this kind of proliferation of columns in column-intensive countries like Greece, but not in Manchester.

Purists would point out, however, that not all of the columns in Manchester can be traced to ancient Greece. If you made it through your own social studies classes, you may remember that, not counting the humor column, the Greeks created three basic types of columns. They are:

  • DORIC – This is like the white bread of columns, your basic vanilla. It’s plain and simple and visible at places like the old Maynard School or at Boufford’s Funeral Home at the northwest corner of Bridge and Pine streets.
  • IONIC – If Doric is vanilla then ionic columns are like fudge ripple. They’re a little more colorful, with fancy scrolls on top called volutes. Good examples? The columns in front of the New Hampshire Institute of Art at Hanover and Pine or the old St. Jean School on Kelley Street.
  • CORINTHIAN – This is the Rocky Road of columns, loaded with details. The tops of these babies look like the salad bar at Hannaford’s. Some good examples can be found at the Bishop’s Residence at 657 River Road, at the huge brick block at Bridge and Union and outside the former home of Association Canado-Americaine on Concord Street.

Over the last 150 years, local builders have taken those three basic themes and, like the Romans before them, they’ve created untold variations. You want consistency? Go visit the Parthenon. Around here, ruffles and flourishes were all the rage.

Maybe it’s because the buildings that make up Manchester’s most notable architectural feature – the Amoskeag Millyard, home to the Millyard Museum – are pretty utilitarian. They’re boxy and symmetrical without a lot of sexy details. According to some local experts, our founding fathers and mothers may have compensated for the lack of industrial panache with flashy homes.

”Before the Civil War, a lot of the Greek Revival columns were hand done and they were expensive as a result,” said Fred Matuszewski from CMK Architects, ”but with the advent of the Industrial Revolution – which led to Manchester’s creation – a lot of that work became mass produced.

”It’s clear that Manchester was a real boom-town during that same quarter century,” he added. ”It was the Victorian era, and columns were the design idiom of that day, so builders would go to the mill shops where they were turning out the columns, pick out what they wanted and that’s what would wind up on the structure.”

”It would be a lot like walking into Home Depot today looking for spindles for your staircase,” added Steve Koziatek, a preservation architect. ”The whole philosophy was to embellish and decorate and make things as ornate as possible and the machines that turned out these wood products made that a reality.

”They didn’t necessarily fit with the style, either,” Steve explained. ”You might have wound up with whatever the builder picked up on a given day. He might have chosen a type of column he hadn’t used in a while, which is why you might see a shingle house with Doric columns in front. It doesn’t always mesh, but we’re lucky here to have such a cross-section of types.”

Of course, the harsh New England weather doesn’t help columns. Severe climatic changes can bring down columns faster than Samson, who, if I remember my Old Testament correctly, was Israel’s first independent demolition contractor. He got so mad at Delilah and her Philistine friends that he knocked them – this is an architectural term – right on their flying buttresses.

Unlike Samson, home owners in Manchester have been a little more careful with their columns, although many are suffering from inevitable decay.

”For example, the top portion of the Corinthian columns were often made of composition material like wood or plaster,” Fred explained. ”If they weren’t maintained, they’d rot or break apart. A lot of home owners thought they were just a maintenance problem, so those who have vinylized have often just replaced them with four-by-four posts, which is a shame.”

The message? Preserve, protect and defend your columns so they look as nice as my own personal favorites, the ones in front of the wedding cake apartment blocks known as The Milton and The Belmont up on Hanover Hill.

Yes, they’re a little bit grandiose, perhaps even baroque, but I like them. I’m sorry if you disagree but – if I may borrow a phrase from my favorite English teacher of all time, the late Joe Sullivan – I column as I see ’em.

John Clayton
John Clayton

John Clayton is Executive Director of the Manchester Historic Association. You can reach him with your historical (or existential) questions at jclayton@manchesterhistoric.org.






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