Preservation Effort article in Courier 2003

Published in The Courier Feb. 19, 2003
reprinted with permission

Officials may aid Croft preservation effort

By LYN BIXBY, Courier Staff

LITTLETON—Town officials are poised to try to buy some time for an impromptu group of would-be preservationists engaged in an unprecedented effort to save some of the buildings at the historic Highland Croft farm.

A Massachusetts developer, who is working on a proposal to put a Home Depot store on the 44-acre, commercially-zoned site by Interstate 93, submitted paperwork two weeks ago for permits to demolish all the buildings.

Then last Thursday a group of two dozen people, including all three selectmen, state Rep. G. Michael Gilman and the state’s historic preservation officer, gathered with a sense of urgency at the Community House Annex on a frigid evening to talk about what could be done to prevent the farm and its distinctive stone bungalow from being leveled.

By Monday a steering committee had been formed and had created a Web site, http://www.highlandcroft.org. Members said they were trying to set up meetings with the developer, Robert MacPherson of Braintree, Mass., or his representatives.

Among those at last week’s meeting was Andy Smith of Peabody & Smith Realty, the broker in the deal. He offered to present preservation ideas to MacPherson, but he warned that time is short.

“Home Depot has hired counsel to get permits on this land,” Smith said at the meeting. “Do you have 30 days? Maybe, before the serious money starts flowing.”

The demolition paperwork, which must be processed by the first week of March, is on the desk of Town Manager Jason Hoch. He said he will probably sign the documents this week, but intends to attach some conditions.

“One of them is going to be a request for consultation before any demolition occurs,” he said Tuesday.

He said he is researching another possible condition, whether the developer could be required to delay demolition until after all necessary local, state and federal approvals for a Home Depot or any other kind of retail development have been obtained. The permitting process is expected to take six months or more.

“It’s a tough spot to be in,” Hoch said, “trying to look for the graceful answer to making a development that some people want to go forward go forward, but at the same time being very sensitive to a larger number of people than we’ve had in any project in the past expressing concern about demolishing structures.”

The preservation effort was sparked by a story in The Courier about Highland Croft, which is located on Route 18, and the likelihood that the buildings would be lost if a 100,000 square-foot Home Depot store is built on the site.

The Scottish name, meaning mountain farm, was given to the property by William B. Dickson, a steel industry executive from Pittsburgh. He bought the farm around 1907 as a summer residence for his family and built the nine-bedroom “bungalow” in 1911. It is perched on a hilltop with sweeping views of the White Mountains, and its stonework was reportedly done by the same masons who built the Mount Washington Hotel.

The house, which cannot be seen from the road, received critical acclaim and was featured in a book published in 2000, “Summer Cottages in the White Mountains.”

James McConaha, the state’s historic preservation officer and the director of the state Division of Historical Resources, drove up from Concord for last week’s meeting and said he believes the property has enough historic significance to be eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.

“I would urge you to focus on making certain that the buildings don’t come down and then work on your options,” he said.

The meeting, which lasted two hours, was arranged by Amy Paul, who described herself as a stay-at-home mom who is new to the area, and by Jeff Richards, a Littleton High School teacher.

“I’m not anti-development,” Paul said. “I’m for preservation of Highland Croft.”

Richards was more forceful, contending that the destruction of Highland Croft for a retail store such as Home Depot would send a message to corporate America that “culture and tradition mean nothing to Littleton.”

He suggested a nonprofit organization could be created to buy the property and turn it into the “Croft Farm and Cultural Arts Center.”

But the property is listed at $1.2 million and is under option to MacPherson’s Cape Breton Corp., which has built a number of Home Depot stores, including the one in Tilton that is closest to Littleton.

Smith said MacPherson has been paying $10,000 per month to maintain his option to buy the property, which runs for another year.

He said Highland Croft had been on the market for seven years, and he estimated he had spent hundreds of hours talking with prospective buyers. “A lot of people have looked at it and tried to find an alternative,” Smith told the people at last week’s meeting. “I think you’re too late.”

Deborah Warner, a clinical psychologist, suggested MacPherson and Home Depot could be approached in a spirit of cooperation.

“I’m not sure I’m interested in purchasing the property,” she said. “What can we do to help Home Depot? What enticements can we give them to preserve the property?”

Select board Chair Bill Hight  suggested Home Depot officials might consider preserving the stone bungalow with a few acres around it where a group could relocate the big red barns that can be seen from Route 18 and perhaps build a ballfield.

“If we fight ‘em, we’ll get nothing,” Hight said. “If Andy could talk to them and get to the right people, this could be wonderful.”

Eddy Moore, the chair of the Zoning Board of Adjustment, urged anyone who approaches Home Depot officials not to tell them what to do. “You can use reverse psychology,” he said, “and the power of suggestion.”

A spokesman for Home Depot, John Simley, said as far as he could recall, the company has not developed a store on a site where preservation of historic buildings was an issue.

On Long Island, he said, an abandoned graveyard was preserved in the middle of a Home Depot parking lot, and in New Jersey some old trees were saved, also in a parking lot.

Simley declined to discuss the Highland Croft preservation drive, saying the company had not signed a contract and was still shopping for a location.

“Negotiations kind of happen on their own timetable,” he said. “When things get bogged down, you go find yourself an alternative. But especially in a place like Littleton, every week that goes by without a store is a lot of lost sales.”

However, he said Home Depot officials had not set any deadlines for signing a contract.

“The process that we are in right now is evaluating a number of properties in and around Littleton,” he said. “We’ll move with the one that makes the most sense strategically and economically.”

A Connecticut developer, Konover & Associates, has an option on 55 acres on the north side of the Exit 43 interchange and has been trying to interest Home Depot in that site.

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