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Aurore Eaton's Looking Back: Prosperity in Manchester and a fireproof building to lead by example

April 15. 2013 5:37PM

The New Hampshire Fire Insurance Company fared well in 1906, despite paying out on heavy losses resulting from the San Francisco earthquake. In fact, it brought in more income from premiums that year than it ever had. The company also met its obligations promptly after a serious fire in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1901 and after the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904, when that city lost most of its commercial district. And, once again, New Hampshire Fire was there for its policy holders in 1908 after a 350-acre fire destroyed 1,000 buildings in Chelsea, Massachusetts. The company deservedly earned a stellar reputation.

With good publicity propelling it forward, New Hampshire Fire was able to continue expanding its operations, especially in the Midwest and the West. As the staff grew, the company's headquarters near City Hall became overcrowded. The idea of building a new home office took shape. The company bought a lot on Hanover Street, two blocks up from City Hall, and searched for an architect who could design a building that would exemplify its corporate motto, "Sound, Solid and Successful."

At that time Edward L. Tilton, a prominent New York-based architect, was receiving favorable attention in Manchester as the designer of the beautiful and impressive Carpenter Memorial Library on Pine Street, which was completed in 1914. He had been educated at the Ecole des Beaux Arts (School of Fine Arts) in Paris. Here he had learned how to blend the enduring design elements of classical architecture with modern building materials and up-to-date ideas about lighting, ventilation and space usage.

New Hampshire Fire hired Tilton to create a structure that would have space for growth, be as fireproof as possible, and also serve as a visible symbol of the company's status. Tilton's design was evocative of a Greek temple, with a front entryway flanked by six massive Ionic columns. The building was constructed almost entirely of granite, steel and cement, making it nearly fireproof. The monumental architecture was pleasing in appearance as well as practical. The Union newspaper spoke glowingly of the new structure, ". it is an object lesson in safe construction. It has cost a pretty penny, to be sure, but it won't burn down. And in a city like Manchester, with miles upon miles of flimsy buildings, inviting fire and threatening danger to life and possessions, it is worth much to have this and other new buildings silently proclaiming the new era of safety."

The company moved into its new headquarters at 156 Hanover Street on July 31, 1915. The building's interior had an avant-garde open-concept shared work space. According to the Union, ".there is virtually but one room in the structure. There are one or two small offices, and a room for stockholders' meetings, but generally speaking, the entire interior is a great workroom for the carrying on of the business of the company. In the center of the building there is a large open space, unbroken by supporting columns and lighted from above." Now that space was available for them, several employees were transferred from the company's Philadelphia office. After they arrived, the total number of people working in the building was 75.

In October 1915, the company held a "home week" to celebrate its prosperity. Employees from field offices around the country traveled to Manchester for the occasion. They toured the new building and got together in groups for meetings and social activities. A banquet was held at the Riverside Inn in Hooksett. According to The Insurance Journal, the hall was transformed into ".a large representation of the United States with the home office in the center of a great rectangle and trains and autos speeding toward it as toward a common goal..It was very well done, the tables being covered with green moss, tiny trees, rocks, etc." The guests enjoyed a meal of crab and lobster, washed down with martinis and maraschino punch. Between courses, everyone joined in singing popular songs. No doubt the war in Europe was on their minds as they sang, "I didn't raise my boy to be a soldier."

Next week: The next decades and the company builds again on North Elm Street.

Aurore Eaton is executive director of Manchester Historic Association;

History Manchester

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