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Monday, July 21, 2014

In Mont Vernon, one of few water towers left in NH needs some repair

MONT VERNON – Nobody could call the tower alongside Chris Hipp’s house beautiful, but it’s certainly arresting.

With wooden shingles falling off, vines surrounding the base and trees looming in on all sides, the 40-foot-tall tower looks like a prop from an post-apocalypse movie rather than a memento to pre-electricity
indoor plumbing. It also looks badly in need of repair. ...

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MONT VERNON – Nobody could call the tower alongside Chris Hipp’s house beautiful, but it’s certainly arresting.

With wooden shingles falling off, vines surrounding the base and trees looming in on all sides, the 40-foot-tall tower looks like a prop from an post-apocalypse movie rather than a memento to pre-electricity
indoor plumbing. It also looks badly in need of repair.

“I was told: This is going to be an expensive whether you fix it or let it fall down,” said Hipp as he gazed up at the tower alongside the house on Main Street in Mont Vernon that he and his wife, JoAnn Kitchel, bought a year ago.

He hopes to fix it up because, he says, it’s interesting. Plus, the family’s two elementary-school kids have ideas if the tower ever becomes safe to enter, ranging from an awesome lemonade stand to a sort of inside-out tree house. “My son is already talking: on the second floor I want a shelf, and a platform over there ...,” said Hipp, an illustrator with PennWell Publishing in Nashua.

Jim Garvin, the former New Hampshire state architectural historian, is pretty excited, too, because standing private water towers are extremely rare in New Hampshire.

“The only two that I can think of is this one in Mont Vernon and one up in Sandwich,” said Garvin, who took pictures of the Mont Vernon tower in 1999 as part of his research.

Actually, they may not be quite that rare: there are two other water towers in Mont Vernon alone. One, hidden in the trees behind a Victorian house on Hutchinson Road, is in fairly good shape and even has a metal frame holding it up, while the other on Hillcrest Drive is in very bad repair.

Mont Vernon’s master plan from 2000 mentioned the three water towers and hoped they could be saved, noting “current homeowners are not willing to undertake all of the repairs necessary to salvage the towers, but all have expressed an interest in working with the town to save the towers if matching funds can be obtained.” No funds were ever found, however.

The Main Street tower is by far the most visible of the three – although visible isn’t really the right word. So many trees have grown around it that the tower is hardly noticeable to the thousands of cars that drive past on Route 13 every day.

The family is probably going to have to do any repairs on their own. Barns and related structure sometimes received financial assistance, as do projects like a community apple orchard or general store, but that hasn’t extended to a water tower.

“We try to help people with special features of their historic homes,” said Jennifer Goodman, executive director of the New Hampshire Preservation Alliance, pointing to such items as silos and grain cribs. “Nobody has ever brought up a water tower.”

Water towers used to be fairly common alongside large private homes or the many boarding houses and hotels that filled New Hampshire in the era when Bostonians rode trains and stayed here to escape the summer heat. Water was pumped to a holding tank or cistern atop the tower – Hipp’s tank was removed a decade ago because it was listing dangerously – and from there it ran down into the dwelling as needed, creating water pressure.

“It was the pre-electric technology for providing pressurized water to a house,” said Garvin. “If you had, say, an inside bathroom with a toilet that flushes, then you had to have a water tower.”

These days, water pressure in private homes is created by a pressured water tank.

The big drawback to water towers is winter weather: Unless the water was used up quickly every day, they had to be drained in the fall to keep from freezing and breaking, which is why they tended to be associated with summer hotels.

The early water towers pumped water up to the top via windmills, but if there was ever a windmill here on comparatively crowded Main Street, it is long gone. Most of the plumbing is gone, too; there’s a pipe on the side of the house, leading into the attic, that Hipp suspects once connected to the water tower, although he isn’t sure.

The house itself dates back to at least the mid-1800s.

The tower appears to have been built in 1904 by George Marden, who made extensive changes – he raised the then-one-story house and built a new ground story under it. It’s unclear when it stopped being used, although town residents who were children in the 1930s say it had stopped being used years earlier, probably after electricity came to Main Street in the second decade of the century.

A woodworker who examined the tower says that three of the four main sills supporting it are in good shape, and it wouldn’t be too hard to lift up the tower and replace the rotten one. The wooden frame inside the walls looks to be in good shape, although Hipp hasn’t dared to try going up the stairs all the way to the roof. He did raise a small camera on a long pole to photograph the very top, where the water tank once stood, and it appears to be in reasonably good shape.

He assumes that there’s a well in the middle of the floor, but that’s a guess: “There’s so much debris in there I haven’t uncovered it.”

Hipp says the family has a number of more pressing home repairs to undertake before they turn to the water tower, a situation that will resonate with anybody who owns a 19th-century home, but they’re still planning to get it fixed up. With any luck, it will be done before Halloween, when much of the town descends on Main Street for a
community-wide trick or treat.

“This would be a great haunted house,” he said.

David Brooks can be reached at 594-6531 or dbrooks@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow Brooks on Twitter (@GraniteGeek).