If Walls Could Talk

Beverly residents preserve history by renovating historic buildings.

By Samantha Cossick and Marissa Statler | 06/12/2011

For many families, a house is more than just a place to sleep and eat; it serves as a home and part of a life story. Beverly resident and woodworker, Tom Downs, believes those relationships are what make the town’s buildings part of its living history. Each building has a story to tell.

That is why Downs bought “The Enterprise,” a building on Main Street originally built in the early 1800s, which has served many functions in Beverly. It was once home to the Randolph Enterprise newspaper started by George P. Sargent in 1874.

“All of these old buildings have clues in them,” Downs said. “As you are working through a building, at certain times, you will find things that are left there, almost like time capsules because craftsmen had pride in their work.”

For instance, there is an old tradition of a carpenter leaving a brand new coin behind the last piece of molding in a home he was building as a way to wish good luck to the family, he said.

Downs is currently in the process of restoring the Enterprise building, which he bought in 2004 for $35,000. When the restoration is complete, the second floor will serve as a home for his family, and the first floor can be a turn-of-the-century reenactment space. When all of the work is done, Downs hopes the building will be worth $150,000.

While working on the structure, Downs has found many items, such as Wedgewood china, cups and saucers, hangers for gutters, tops of medicine bottles and parts of drinking crocks, which he feels tell a story about the building.

The best find has been some old ledger books from the early 1920s that detail what was going on in the building when it served as a hotel with 19 rooms, an ice cream parlor, a small shop, a restaurant and a bakery, he said.

One thing Downs noticed in the ledger is that the ice cream parlor attracted a lot of the local kids, especially the next-door neighbors.

“It gives a good idea of what people were doing, what type of accounts were behind held,” Downs said.

The Enterprise building and the work that Downs is putting into it are just a small portion of the restoration movement that is taking place in Beverly.

“It’s surprising. It seems that I came into town, probably within a couple of years one way or the other, of exactly the right spot to see what I wanted to see,” Downs said. “I wanted to see an area that was recognizing its historic value, that had people, it doesn’t have to be a lot, but people that are passionate about it.”

Currently there are nine properties in Beverly that are in various phases of restoration, said Michelle Depp, executive director for Historic Beverly Preservation and the Rich Mountain Battlefield Foundation.

A property is considered historic if it meets the National Register of Historic Places criteria for evaluation, said Megan Grisolano, an AmeriCorps volunteer with Historic Beverly Preservation and the Rich Mountain Battlefield Foundation.

The National Register of Historic Places website lists the following criteria for historic sites:
  • Associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of our history.
  • Associated with the lives of significant persons in our past.
  • Embody the distinctive characteristics of a type, period, or method of construction, or that represent the work of a master, or possess high artistic values, or that represent a significant and distinguishable entity whose components may lack individual distinction.
  • That have yielded or may be likely to yield, information important in history or prehistory.

“We acquired properties to create a home for the organization and also save the buildings from being abolished or purchased up by individuals that might not be as like-minded,” Depp said. “They might want to tear down a building, but Historic Beverly sees the value in adapting and preserving the building.”

Both the Rich Mountain Battlefield Foundation and Historic Beverly Preservation were established in the late 1990s and began purchasing properties with donated funds in 1998, she said.

“The organizations were working toward promoting and preserving the history of the community and educating visitors to the community and the residents here,” Depp said.

Much of the restoration has been funded through state grants in addition to having a private benefactor who has pledged to match any funding they received from the state, she said.

Tourism and reenactment fairs have also helped to generate revenue and interest in the historic value of Beverly, Depp said.

“It opens up an avenue for us to reach out to people who might not come to a museum,” she said. “They are designed to make people think about things differently. We always end up teaching someone something.”

Downs said the reenactment fairs in Beverly have helped bring in more people who are interested in history as well as sponsoring a mindset in the town that history can be preserved.

The fairs allow people to see what life was like during the 15th through 17th centuries when settlers were coming into the valley, he said. For example, during the fairs, Downs poses as a traveling cabinet maker and craftsmen who is hosted by various families in exchange for making items such as front doors, kitchen tables or cabinets.

Since he moved to Beverly, people interested in the reenactment of historical blacksmithing, weaving, spinning, printing and woodworking have moved into the town, he said.

“Just the idea that Main Street is looking better; it is bringing in more professional people back into the area, which is good to see,” Downs said. “You can’t go ahead and support the maintenance of these old buildings if they’re empty; they’ve got to pay for themselves.”

Until the past two decades, many of the buildings, such as Downs’s Enterprise building, had been empty for many years and had begun to deteriorate, Depp said.

“We’ve been able to revitalize some of those older structures, save them and show people what can be done with a historic building,” she said.

Although Beverly Historic Preservation and the Rich Mountain Battlefield Foundation do not sell historic properties to individuals, the preservation work they have done has encouraged individual citizens, like Downs, to purchase historic sites and work with the foundations to fix them up, Grisolano said.

“We want to create a kind of historic district that not only works toward preserving history but also works toward the economic goals of the community.”

This is why many of the restored buildings in Beverly are home to modern retail facilities, such as restaurants or antique shops, she said.

The restoration movement has gone beyond the dream of Historic Beverly Preservation with many residents and neighbors taking an interest in fixing up their properties as well, Depp said.

“The community itself is kind of buying into the restoration of the community,” she said. “People are taking a renewed interest in a sense of community, a sense of pride in the community and the history of the community.”

Depp said she has witnessed many residents taking an interest in replacing their windows with more historic ones or simply improving the look of their sidewalks.

For Historic Beverly Preservation, that sense of community, history and importance to previous owners, will always be there in the historic buildings, Depp said.

“I would rather see a quality old building loved and saved than a brand new modern building where everything becomes cookie-cutter and there’s no treasure to it,” she said.

“Saving the old buildings adds character and charm to the buildings. Old buildings are kind of like your most comfortable sweatshirt.”

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