Stop One: July 22, 2019 The Rice -Varick Hotel, Opposite Merrimack Park
From the information on the envelope, dated August 14, 1929, there was the hotel name, the fact that it was located across from Merrimack Park, and that it was located in Manchester New Hampshire. From my grandfather’s writing, he described his time in Manchester as: (please note, I have tried to “translate” the cursive as best as I could. I also do not add any punctuation or fix any spelling)
“Manchester is quite a large city for there are many stores and the streets are wide. The only objections that I have to this city is to the cops, for they are quite hard on out of state cars! If you park longer than an hour on the Main Street, they give you a tag, but as to date, I have been lucky enough to escape them? Knock on wood – here is my head! The theater last night was pretty fair “The Black Watch” and I got home at about eleven P.M. and today I worked. W. Manchester (?) put in six large displays and am going to hold two over so that I probably will be back Friday evening but as to that I will not know until later tomorrow. This evening, I am going to read Cesar and after an hours reading, I believe that I will retire, for I am kind of tired tonight. Tina dear, I have discovered a new type of window today, which I can put in much shorter time and it looks a whole lot prettier. It consists of a number of panels with these tubes running to the ceiling. It makes a very striking window I thought.
So, with these clues in mind, I set to find this hotel. When I googled the name, the only thing I came up with was the Rice-Hamilton. I googled Merrimack Park also to no avail. While Manchester sits on the Merrimack River, there was no mention of a designated park with that name. So, I tried another clue. On the letterhead, it listed both the name of the hotel manager and of the hotel treasurer, Thomas Rice Varick. So, I googled his name (since that was the name of the hotel) and I finally uncovered the location and the history of this hotel.
The Varicks were a wealthy and well-known Manchester family, mainly known for their hardware business. This hotel was originally called the New Manchester Hotel and it was located at 32 Merrimack Street. It was purchased by the John Varick Company in 1927 and re-opened and renamed in 1928. The family added , but that would not had been present when my Grandfather visited in 1929. The Hotel filed for bankruptcy in 1959. After that, it was used as a rooming house until it was destroyed by a fire on June 3, 1976. Fifty people lost their home At this time, it was used as a rooming house to 50 people.
The park across the street has another interesting story. It is the first downtown park in Manchester and was initially called Park Square. First called, it was called Park Square. Prior to the beginning of the Civil War (1859), the name was changed to Merrimack Park. A monument to honor those who fought in the Civil War was dedicated in 1879. In 1985, additional monuments were dedicated to those who fought in World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War, and the name of the park was changed to Veteran’s Park. So, that solved the mystery to why I couldn’t find a park named Merrimack Park on today’s Google Maps.
In 1938, the population of Manchester was 76,834. At that time, there were six hotels located in Manchester and at the Rice-Varick Hotel, there was a bus station. Manchester was another city in New England that harness the water power from the Merrimack River to power mills along the river. At one point, the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company had 64 buildings and housing for workers. However in the 1920s and early 1930s, this company had fallen into financial difficulties and closed in 1935. My grandfather might had been there to witness when the mills were the central focus of Manchester, but he also probably witnessed the demise of the northern mills as well.
Since there were no multi-laned highways in 1929, I wanted to base my trips on “by-ways” as much as possible. With Google Maps, you can check “avoid highways” as an option, which did provide me with some non crazy highway options. But, luckily, one of my friends had a series of books, published by the Federal Writers’ Project in the mid to late 1930s, that contained a section titled “High Roads and Low Roads (Tours): Mile-by-Mile Description of the State’s Highways. I am basing my “tours” to these locations on what was listed then as much as possible.
I was doing this tour of two New Hampshire locations in opposite order. My Grandfather first visited Concord and then went to Manchester. I conducted the trip in a different order.
In the 1938 High Roads and Low Roads tours, Tour 3: From Lowell to Second Connecticut Lake, would had probably been the route that my Grandfather would had probably done. Route 3 or the Daniel Webster Highway did exist then. However, today’s Daniel Webster Highway is now a three or four lane road, so in the spirit of the fact that this type of highway did not exist back then, I will be taking an alternative route. Part of this route will be Tour 17: From Portsmouth to Keene. Starting backwards from home, I will get onto Route 119 in Littleton, connecting with Route 111 in Pepperell. Before entering New Hampshire, I would get onto Route 122, following that north until Milford, which is where Tour 17 would begin. From Milford, in 3 miles, I will travel through Amherst before heading to Bedford. I would enter Manchester on the Granite Street Bridge, which is also part of Tour 17. Once I am over the bridge, I will head north on Elm Street (Route 3) and turn right onto Merrimack Street.
I left my house in Maynard at 6:31 a.m. It was slightly cooler than it had been the previous three days and was partly sunny. From Google Maps, it was projected to take about 1 hour, 26 minutes to reach my destination. From my house, I took Route 27 to a series of backroads before ending up on Route 119 west in Littleton. My other “restriction” was not using my phone’s GPS. I knew that Route 111 would be going off to the right at some point towards Nashua and I would be heading towards Route 122. The road turned off, and there was a sign saying to stay straight for Rt 122, but while I was on it, it seemed a lot longer than what I read about on my Google maps printout. It was a pretty ride, with lots of farms and woods and finally, there was the turn for Route 122. This also took me through the very pretty town of Hollis, New Hampshire, where I had done a race before. It is described in the 1938 book on New Hampshire as, “an attractive rural village”, which I totally agree. It seemed very colonial to me, which the book also confirmed that the area around the Common were built in the early 1700s. I also passed by Silver Lake State Park, which you couldn’t see what it looked like from the road.
The tone of the ride started to change when I made a left turn onto Route 101A in Amherst. No longer was this a scenic country road – it was multiple lanes in each direction and multiple businesses on each side of the road. I missed the quick left turn onto Route 101 East, so needed to go down just a little bit to do a U-turn so that I could get onto the on-ramp leading to Route 101. And if I thought Route 101A was busy, Route 101 was even more of a “highway” feel, with lots of commuters heading east towards Manchester. Suddenly, I needed to snap out of the nice 40 miles per hour road to reach a “cruising” speed of 60 miles per hour so that no commuter would be mad at my poking along. There wasn’t a lot of opportunity to look around (one of the main issues with my no longer being the “co-pilot” and being the straight “pilot”), but I did see a winery on the eastbound side, which turns out to be LaBelle Winery in Amherst. Entering Bedford, I was still moving at a good rate and felt like I would beat the 86 minute time frame. But, then I saw a sign – 7 minutes needed to go 2 miles. I could do the math and this meant things were going to really slow down for some reason. And very quickly, I found the reason: summer road work. Quickly two lanes merged into one lane (and with the folks who needed to merge of course waiting for the last moment to do that). The traffic just poked along for about 25 minutes. Finally, the construction ended and I was hoping to make up some time. But, I also didn’t think about while I was going into Manchester for this little search, others were going into work. Manchester is now a city of over 111,000 people, has a large university, and lots of people heading there on a Monday morning.
While sitting in traffic on the Granite Street Bridge, I noticed tons of mills to my left. This included a museum sign to the Millyard Museum, which perhaps might be someplace fun to venture to the next time. Finally Elm Street (aka Route 3) was there, I took the left and Merrimack Street was quickly on my right. There was on street parking, and remembering my Grandfather’s words about out of staters getting ticketed, I made sure that I went out and bought time for my space. I arrived in Manchester at 8:06 a.m., so 95 minutes of travel and a total of 49.7 miles (including the little u-turn). To the right of where I parked was the park. I noticed a lot of homeless people camped out in the park, along with a huge yellow tent that I assumed was for performances. I crossed the street to where the Rice-Varick Hotel was located. Towards the intersection of Elm and Merrimack was the Thirsty Moose Taproom, whose address was technically on Elm Street, but whose side door was situated on Merrimack Street. A long whitish gray three story building, called the Merrimack Commons sits at 20 Merrimack Street. This building appears to house the New Hampshire Public Defenders Office as well as a lot of other law offices ( a courthouse is located across the street, next to the park
Then there is a small alley that had a metal fence and gateway, and next to that was a single story white building, 40 Merrimack Street that houses a Volvo dealer and then a multi story part of the same building that is a parking garage. The number of this building was 40 – 56 Merrimack Street. So, no number 32 anywhere in site. No plaque that it existed. Nothing. And from the picture I found, it was a really large hotel, so I am wondering how Merrimack Street originally did look. It was somewhat disappointing not to see any remnant of this once hotel.
My Grandfather mentioned going to the theater to see the movie “The Black Watch”. So, I pulled up my GPS to see if any theaters were nearby. The Palace Theater on Hanover Street popped up. It was a several blocks over from Merrimack Street. The Palace Theater is still an active theater with a variety of shows being done there. I am not sure if this might had been the place where my Grandfather went, as according to research, in that timeframe, the Palace was doing mostly vaudeville acts, although, it changed to showing mostly movies from 1930 to 1960. I had actually seen one of my friends perform there in the late 1970s. At one time, there were 22 active theaters in Manchester. There were two more within easy distance of the Rice-Varick Hotel – the Strand Theater at 20 Hanover Street, which is now a set of stores, and the Crown Theater at 97 Hanover Street. Both of these locations did show movies during that time frame.
I also went back and explored the park. The Civil War Monument is very impressive. There are four different military personnel at each corner. The column rises 50 feet in the air and on top of that is an eight foot high statue of Victory. There is an inscription to” the men of Manchester who gave their services to the war which preserved the Union of the States.” There are four “cubes” dedicated to the men and women who served in World World I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War.
After my class in Lowell, where I sampled iced teas from five different locations, I decided to continue that trend during these road trips. The first stop, the Midtown Cafe at the Beacon was just a short stroll from Merrimack Street. There was outdoor seating on the sidewalk along with some pretty planters. The cafe itself is part of a multi-purpose building. There seemed to be a lot of regulars as the staff was calling them by name. I ordered a regular iced tea (the only selection) and went outside to do some notes. After a week of really good iced teas in Lowell, I was underwhelmed by this iced tea. There was a coffee-ish taste to it and I ended up throwing it out. Since I was going to try and find some of the theaters, I continued to walk north on Elm Street, and passed by Lala’s Hungarian Pastry shop. Since I don’t walk by too many Hungarian bakeries, I decided to stop by and try out two little cookies, which were very tasty. After finding the Palace and Crown Theaters on Hanover Street, I kept walking east on Hanover Street, until I found the Restoration Cafe at 235 Hanover Street. This little cafe, housed in the former dorm for Sacred Heart Nursing Students, is based on the theme of apothecary elixirs and traveling snake oil salesmen. There was a pretty outdoor courtyard, surrounded by lush scenery. There was a day and evening beverages menu. My iced tea was served in a beaker, which was a cool touch. Unfortunately, it still did not meet the Lowell Standard.
I headed back to my car, well in advance of my parking expiring. While many parts of Manchester still looked like it may had in 1929, I was disappointed that on Merrimack Street, there was no evidence of that once grand hotel where my Grandfather had stayed.