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Tour groups see the historic State House gallery in which the House of Representatives meets.
Tour groups see the historic State House gallery in which the House of Representatives meets. (Janet Knott / Globe Staff)
 If you go: Concord, New Hampshire

Get a feel for Colonial America -- or outer space

Email|Print| Text size + By Marty Basch
Globe Correspondent / June 18, 2006

CONCORD, N.H. -- He stood among the empty chairs of the House of Representatives, his only audience two constituents who happened to bump into him during their self-guided tour of the State House.

The state representative whose political career has spanned three decades was transformed into an impromptu tour guide.

``In New Hampshire, there are so many lawmakers that either you are one, have been one, or know one," said Howard Dickinson, tree farmer and Republican from Center Conway.

With 400 representatives serving in the New Hampshire Legislature, the odds are pretty good that you will run into one somewhere around the state.

Maybe even under the golden dome of the state Capitol. The dome is evident everywhere in Concord. It can be seen from Interstate 93, which pulses through the city, and from the simulated fire tower inside the Museum of New Hampshire History. It is the oldest capitol in the country where the legislature uses its original chambers.

Stern faces of lawmakers past stare out from the 200 or so paintings that adorn the State House walls, from Abraham Lincoln to Franklin Pierce, the only man from New Hampshire elected president.

Outside in State House Park are other famous faces of Granite State history memorialized in stone -- including statesman Daniel Webster, Revolutionary War General John Stark , and antislavery advocate John Parker Hale.

Atop the State House dome perches a gilded eagle, looking to the right to symbolize peace.

It's not the first bird to hold that spot. The original, its head facing left to symbolize war, is now stationed inside the marble rotunda of the elegant New Hampshire Historical Society on Park Street, a few steps from the State House.

That wooden eagle, carved in 1818, weighs some 600 pounds and stands about 6 1/2 feet tall. You pass it en route to the second-floor gallery . A self-guided tour leads into the Tuck Library with its 50,000 volumes, 200,000 photographs, and 800,000 pages of state newspapers dating from 1756 to 1900 .

The nearby State Library contains other pieces of history, including a sculpture made from a limb of the state's oldest elm tree, which stood for 250 years before being cut down. A huge relief map of the state towers over visitors in the map room.

Across from the State House, the entrance to Eagle Square is marked by the Concord Clock Tower . Erected in 1872, the clock and its bell, which rings on the hour, were reassembled and restored in 1998.

Around the red brick oasis are offices, shops, and restaurants, and the Museum of New Hampshire History.

The museum tells the story of the state from its earliest Native Americans to the modern day. Landscape paintings, quilts, furniture, clocks, and other items are on display near the Hands-on History Family Center, which mimics a country store. The indoor fire tower is clever, showing steeples and rooftops instead of mountain panoramas, though a working fire tower atop Oak Hill in neighboring Loudon is visible.

Concord's Main Street -- split by Pleasant Street into North and South Main streets -- can also be seen from that tower. Between the Capitol Center for the Arts and the studios of New Hampshire Public Radio, you can find everything from a pair of bookstores and camera shops to great second hand music at Pitchfork Records.

Pop in for a bite or conversation at the Brown Bag Deli, a pint at The Barley House, or pad thai at Siam Orchid. The red bricks of Eagle Square separate the Eagle Square Deli and Capitol Grille, all across from the State House. Or head down Pleasant Street to unwind at the colorful but smoky Green Martini. Popular Hermanos on Hills Avenue has traditional Southwestern fare.

The works of New England artists and craftsmen are found in a number of Concord galleries, including the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen's Gallery 205 on North Main Street.

Down the street is the impressive mansion of the Kimball-Jenkins Estate , now housing a school of art with three galleries showcasing works of students and faculty. Two galleries are located in a former carriage house by the banks of the Merrimack River ; the Jill Coldren Wilson Gallery in the main building is worth a visit just to see the handsome woodwork in the ceilings, doorways, and fireplaces.

About a block from the State House is the Anderson-Soule Gallery featuring contemporary works, while about 2 miles from downtown is the Mill Brook Gallery and Sculpture Garden .

The state's memorial to New Hampshire teacher Christa McAuliffe, who died 20 years ago in the space shuttle Challenger accident, is in the Christa McAuliffe Planetarium. Its pyramid-shaped roof shelters exhibits that include interactive education stations about the sun, climate, astronomy, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

A moon rock, meteorite chunk, hands-on science displays, shuttle cockpit, and model rocket are for viewing, while the gift shop has kid favorites like freeze-dried astronaut ice cream and chewy candy alien brains. Parents can catch a catnap in the comfortable planetarium theater seats as one of three shows is run. There, the sky above Concord takes shape, on the dome-shaped screen .

Contact Marty Basch at marty@ martybasch.com.

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