CONCORD, N.H. — “Having an independent film house is hugely important to the vitality of a city,” documentary filmmaker Ken Burns said at the recent New Hampshire premiere of his latest film, “The Central Park Five.” The sold-out show was held at the Red River Theatres, a three-screen, state-of-the-art, nonprofit theater house. The theater, which opened five years ago, was one step in the dynamic revitalization of this city. Today, the lively, historical downtown area is home to nearly 200 shops, restaurants, and independently-owned businesses.
In the past, we had admired Concord’s gold-dome State House as we flew down Interstate 93, and seen scads of TV clips of politicos posing and posturing in front of city sites. But it had been a while since we really explored this capital city. Instead of heading home after the premiere, we decided to stick around.
Concord has a number of chain hotels, scattered among fast food joints and gas stations, toward the north end of town. Instead, we checked into the recently renovated Centennial Hotel — more boutique than cookie cutter. The imposing Victorian, complete with two turret towers, has received a complete makeover; 32 rooms are uniquely sized but all have soothing neutral colors, modern baths, and contemporary furnishings.
The next morning, we walked the several blocks to the State House. “From the day I moved to Concord, downtown’s been one of my favorite places to hang out,” said Liza Poinier of Intown Concord, an organization dedicated to enhancing the historic district. “I have two preschool-age kids, and to them, the State House lawn is the center of the universe.” The recognizable landmark, with its gilded dome, is also the centerpiece of downtown. Built in 1819 of local granite, quarried by prisoners at the nearby state prison, it’s the only state capitol where the legislature still sits in original chambers. There are several sculptures on the 2.6-acre grounds, including one of Daniel Webster, a native of New Hampshire, and Franklin Pierce, the only president from the Granite State. Inside are murals depicting state history and the colorful Hall of Flags, with more than 100 New Hampshire battle flags.
The Museum of New Hampshire History sits across the street in Eagle Square. Housed in a former 1870 stone warehouse, the museum outlines a chronological history of the state and showcases a number of interesting artifacts. We picked up a Concord on Foot map, describing a walking tour of historic downtown. When the railroad arrived in 1842, Concord became the gateway to northern New England and downtown became the center of community activity. Within about 10 blocks or so are more than 50 historic buildings and sights, including the 1851 Eagle Hotel, where Presidents Ulysses Grant, Rutherford Hayes, and Benjamin Harrison once dined and where Franklin Pierce slept.
We strolled by the elaborate 1895 Edson Hill Carriage House, and the impressive Odd Fellows Building, with arched, stained glass windows and brick piers topped with granite. Today, the impressive three- and four-story brick and granite buildings house shops, restaurants, salons, yoga studios, galleries, second-hand stores, old-fashioned pharmacies, locally-owned camera shops, a theater house, art center, and co-ops — all the places that make a city vibrant and livable.
We poked around the shops, stopping in at Bona Fide, chock-full of eco-friendly products; Gibson’s Bookstore, an indie with a great selection and friendly vibe; and Bravo Boutique, with a smart offering of designer fashions. The Granite State Candy Shoppe has been family-owned since 1927, and is the place to go for homemade chocolates, candies, and nuts, and the Concord Food Co-op has one of the largest selections of bulk grains, nuts, and organic produce and products that we’ve seen anywhere.
Check out the Celery Stick Cafe in the back of the co-op with a variety of hot entrees, salads, and baked goods. We considered loading up plates for a take-out lunch, but opted instead for the popular Barley House, where politicians, lawyers, students, shop owners, and locals meet to dine on thoughtfully-prepared comfort food and casual fare. Later, we had drinks and appetizers in the contemporary Granite Room before dinner at cozy and intimate Angelina’s.
Concord, already the political and governmental hub of the state, is fast becoming its cultural center also. The city is home to the Capital Center for the Arts, Red River Theatres, Granite State Symphony Orchestra, Concord Community Music School, and the award-winning Concord Arts Market, a juried, weekly, outdoor artisan and fine arts market (held summer through fall, and special times throughout the year). The League of NH Craftsmen is nearing a successful capital fund-raising campaign to purchase its 8,071-square-foot Craft Center and Headquarters in the south end of downtown. We stopped in the League’s retail gallery on Main Street, where nearly 300 artists display original work.
While we were visiting, there were several special events going on, including indie films and openings at Red River Theatres, author talks at Gibson’s Bookstore, concerts at the Capital Center for the Arts, jazz at the Concord Community Music School, live entertainment at the Barley House, and an indoor farmer’s market. Special events are held throughout the winter; we’re thinking of returning for the annual Ice Bar in nearby Bedford. Billed as “The Largest Ice Bar in the Country,” the five-day festival will also feature ice carvings, light shows, live entertainment, and food.
We had two more places to visit, before we left: Susan N. McLane Audubon Center and the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center, both just outside of historic downtown. The Audubon Center, the oldest in the state, is a great place for a winter walk, with miles of hiking trails through forests and wetlands. We liked the Great Turkey Pond Trail, a 1.2-mile hike to a pretty woodland pond. The trails would be good for snowshoeing.
We spent our last afternoon at the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center, checking out refurbished and replica rockets and jets, a model of the space shuttle, and a host of interactive exhibits. The center also has a state-of-the-art planetarium and an observatory with high-powered telescopes.
We’re glad we stayed; New Hampshire’s capital city is so much more than its State House dome. And, it’s only getting better. The city, with its Downtown Complete Streets Project, has plans to redevelop a 12-block stretch of Main Street with underground utilities, traffic configuration, and new streetscape.
“Concord is already a great destination,” said Poinier. “And in two years, once the Complete Streets project has been implemented, we’ll have one of the most accessible, walkable, and livable downtowns.”
We’ll be back to check it out.