Demolition challenge article in Courier 2003

Published in The Courier January 29, 2003
reprinted with permissionAcclaimed ‘bungalow’ could be demolished for Home Depot

By LYN BIXBY, Courier Staff

LITTLETON—It’s been more than 90 years since Pittsburgh industrialist William Brown Dickson bought a farm on the Waterford Road and built what has been described as one of the finest summer bungalows in the White Mountains region.

The house, which has nine bedrooms and servants quarters, is more like a mansion. Perched on a hilltop, its grand veranda offers a sweeping southerly view of Mount Lafayette and surrounding peaks. It seems as solid as it was the night in the spring of 1911 that Dickson and his family first slept there, but the historic bungalow may not survive to see its century mark.

Dickson named his farm “Highland Croft.” Its destiny was altered in the early 1980s when it was cut in half by the construction of Interstate 93. The property is now bordered by the Exit 43 interchange and is under option to a commercial developer from Massachusetts who is trying to lure a large retail operation to the site, possibly Home Depot.

Few of Dickson’s descendants stayed in the North Country, but one who did is his great grandson, Rick Tilton, the owner of the Grand Depot Café on Cottage Street.

“It’s a very sentimental piece of property for me. It’s a strong part of my family history. It’s just very sad,” he said. “I think the reason a lot of people came up here originally, like my great-grandfather, was because it was peaceful, and it represented a very special part of the country. Once you get Kentucky Fried Chicken and Home Depot and everything else here, it’s kind of like the suburbs.”

Dickson, who lived in Pittsburgh and Montclair, N.J., was first vice president of the United State Steel Company when he built his bungalow, which is not visible from the road. He named his place “Highland Croft” — meaning mountain farm — to honor his Scottish heritage. He used to bring about two dozen family members north in the summers.

“He was very into his family, he loved having everyone around,” Tilton said. “Every Sunday night everyone had dinner together, a big table of 20 or 30 people. I actually have the original plates and the candlesticks from the table.”

Dickson died in 1942, but one man who befriended him decades earlier and admired him is 90-year-old Ken Curran, who grew up on a nearby farm.

“I knew him in the 1920s and 1930s. He was ‘Dixie’ to me,” Curran said. “He was a man who would not just hire a carpenter or hire a contractor. He was out there doing work himself, even though he was a millionaire.”

Dickson was a self-made man who started in the steel industry as a crane operator and came to be regarded as an expert on labor relations. In later life he lectured at Harvard and wrote.

Curran, who became a well-known contractor in New Hampshire, was impressed by Dickson’s efforts to make peace in the steel industry.

“He had been outstanding in trying to smooth the waters in labor relations,” Curran said. “At the turn of the century, labor unions were scratching to get a toenail hold on industry, and the battle was actually with bullets. People were killed. It was very, very bad. No question, labor was mistreated.”

He recalled that Dickson bought a telescope and started a club that he called the Astronomical Society of the White Mountains. “He put all the money in, and it was made up of children and adults,” Curran said. “I was a member. He would lecture about the planets and comets… He wasn’t Thomas Edison, but by golly, he could talk to Thomas Edison.”

In Littleton, Dickson was also influential in the arts. He created the Highland Chorus, and its members practiced at Highland Croft.

“The first concert was presented on Nov. 23, 1923, in the Littleton Opera House. Popular, classical and old favorite selections were sung by the 60-voice chorus under the direction of Mrs. [Maude Young] Parker,” according to “Littleton, crossroads of northern New Hampshire,” a town history edited by Jack Colby and published in 1984.

Colby, a former owner of The Courier, noted in the history that Dickson wrote an article for the newspaper in 1924 in which he expressed concern “about the traffic congestion in Littleton (which he considered to be as bad as New York City) and the economic growth of the area.”

Colby said Dickson felt Littleton’s early settlers lacked vision, and he included a quote from Dickson’s article to illustrate the point: “The river, one of Littleton’s most attractive features, had been treated as a neglected, untidy backyard and the town never measured up to its opportunities.”

Dickson’s big house at Highland Croft achieved critical acclaim, both at the time it was built and recently. It is featured in a book published in 2000, “Summer Cottages in the White Mountains,” (University Press of New England) by Bryant F. Tolles Jr. The book includes copies of some of the architectural plans, which call the building a bungalow.

“Supposedly costing sixty thousand dollars to build, ‘Highland Croft’ is one of the most interesting of the White Mountains’ turn-of-the-century summer cottages,” Tolles writes. “With spacious, free-flowing interior spaces, this efficiently planned and beautifully sited building seems ideally suited for privacy, relaxation, and leisure-time pursuits.”

After Dickson’s death in the early 1940s, Highland Croft remained in his family until 1955, when the property was purchased by Doug Brown and his relatives. Brown had been hired by Dickson as a farm manager and caretaker in 1940, according to his son, David Evans-Brown, who grew up at “The Croft” and now lives in Florida.

He said the masonry work on the big house was done by the same contractors who worked on the Mount Washington Hotel. “It’s workmanship you won’t find today,” he said. “After the hotel was built, they came over and did that work at the croft. If you look at the way the building is put together, there’s nothing out of plumb.”

The overall property, which comprised about 150 acres, included about a half-dozen barns, including two big red barns built by Dickson, a farmhouse (which is visible from Route 18), a pond and several other houses. Among the other houses were a white cottage and a green cottage built by Dickson. The green cottage was demolished for the construction of I-93.

Although Dickson was regarded by many as a warm family man, Evans-Brown said he also valued his privacy.

“He built the white cottage to get away from the kids,” he said. “Then eventually when W.B. built the green cottage, it was to get further away from the kids because there were more kids, and he liked his solitude. Each house had its own personality.” Dickson also built a miniature play house for the children.

After buying the property, the Brown family continued farming it for many years. They also leased the big house for social functions and family reunions in summers and rented it to a Boston-area ski club in winters, although it was not built as a year-round house.

The Brown family held onto the property until a few years ago, when it was sold to the present owners, members of a limited liability corporation, who considered putting a tractor dealership on the property, but did not follow through.

Evans-Brown said his family considered turning the big house into a bed and breakfast or an inn, but determined the price was prohibitive.

“It was just going to cost more than it ever would have returned,” he said. “I would have hoped that somebody would have seen the value of the building, but they probably would have run into the same thing that we ran into… I thought it certainly could have been the basis of something, even a visitors’ center for the community. But I guess it was not meant to be.”

An option to buy the Highland Croft property, which is now just 44 acres and is listed at $1.2 million, is held by Robert M. MacPherson, who heads Cape Breton Corp. of Braintree, Mass., a company that has built Home Depot stores.

MacPherson said in an interview a week-and-a-half ago that he had not signed a contract with Home Depot or any other company and was unsure where on the property a large retail operation would be located. But he did ask town officials last week for the paperwork to apply for permits to demolish the Highland Croft buildings.

Asked whether any of the barns or houses are worth saving, MacPherson said, “Not to me, they’re not.”

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