Judgment day for old Hampton courthouse

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Many saddened by demolition of 140-year-old landmark

By Nick B. Reid

Hampton Union, May 31, 2013

[The following article is courtesy of the Hampton Union and Seacoast Online.]

Hampton District Court building demolition

The 140-year-old building that most recently served as
Hampton’sdistrict court was demolished Tuesday.

HAMPTON — The 140-year-old building that most recently served as Hampton's district court was demolished Tuesday, in accordance with a vote at this year's Town Meeting. And while the voters decided overwhelmingly that it was time for the building to go, history buffs wish it hadn't.

"I was crying. I saw it on my way over (to the new court)," said Belle Coyne, the Seabrook district court deputy clerk who's worked with the state for around 30 years, 20 of which were in that building.

To call it the old courthouse neglects much of its history, highlighted by stints as the first public kindergarten in the state, when it was at the site of the current Centre School; American Legion Post No. 35 hall; Fire Station 2; and a meeting house.

Elizabeth Aykroyd, the former chairwoman of the town's Heritage Commission, said she mounted a campaign to try to save the building a few years ago and lamented that Hampton has lost perhaps its most historic building.

"It is the oldest public building still in existence — or it was," Aykroyd said. "I'm distressed that more efforts were not made. I can understand if you try and try and try, sometimes you come to the end and say 'we can't do any more.' But I don't know how many efforts were made."

State Rep. Fred Rice, a Hampton Republican, also said the building had a "tremendous history" and he didn't think town officials did enough to try to save it.

"The Heritage Commission had an architect and engineer look at it on two different occasions that said it was solid and savable and the powers that be in town chose not to listen to that at the time," Rice said, adding that he felt the town manager and selectmen put more emphasis on a different study that was less confident in the building's integrity.

The building was found in December to contain asbestos and lead paint, which was removed prior to the demolition and cost the town $32,300.

"The level of asbestos is high, very high," Town Manager Fred Welch told selectmen at the time. "It will have to be abated before it can be used for any purpose. It's that bad."

That came after its 2005 abandonment, when the state relocated the court due the building's poor condition. At the time, employees complained it was infested with mold, and it had to be fumigated more than once for fleas.

Coyne, though she had many fond memories in the old courthouse, said it had fallen into a state of disrepair.

"Back then they used to come up from the beach to be arraigned and always in the summertime we had a problem with fleas. We always had it fumigated but they always came back," she said. There were squirrels living in the walls, it would snow in the courtroom because the back door couldn't shut all the way, and the heat was "stifling" when scores of people were waiting to be arraigned in summer, Coyne said.

Hampton District Court building demolition

A bulldozer cleans up the remains of the old Hampton Town Hall.

"The whole big reason we had to leave (was) because (the building) was not handicap accessible. Having hearings out in the driveway is not humane," she said.

But nevertheless, the same firm that offered a price to demolish the building also quoted the town $500,000 to $600,000 to make it into "code compliant usable office space," according to Doug Aykroyd.

Rice said that could have created valuable space.

"The seniors, the youth organizations, some of the charity organizations could have all called that home," he said.

Rice said most of the voters who wanted to take the building down were youngsters or folks who don't know or care about Hampton's history.

"The old people appreciate what it was," he said. "People who just moved here to take a job a few years ago, they don't care." He added: "It's gone now, and now what we're going to do is probably look at a vacant lot with absolutely nothing being done to it for the next five to seven years."

Elizabeth Aykroyd said the demolition means the Lane Memorial Library is now the town's most historic building, built in 1910.

"Of course, the library is talking about a new building, so I'm hoping we don't have to mount another preservation movement for that. That's a very nice building. It really is," she said.

For more photos and video of the demolition, see the library's flickr page

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