On a cool and cloudy Sunday in early March, Town Historian, Susan Barlow, led a group of about 100 people on a history walk down Main St in Manchester.
The first stop was the Bennet Apartments. Formerly Bennet High School and Manchester High School. The architectural firm responsible for the design of the building was Hartwell, Richardson & Driver, the successor firm of H.H Richardson. The style is colonial revival and includes doric columns at the entry and syncopated bricks at the corners. The building was paid for by the Cheney family and opened in 1904. The last graduating class was in 1956, when the new high school opened. The building continued as a junior high school for decades but was converted to senior apartments in 1984.
Across the street from the old high school was Educational Square, a quadrangle of buildings built beginning in 1914, which today is Bennet Academy.
Before the Educational Square, the Ninth District School was located on this site. It was a giant wooden pine building. It burned to the ground in October of 1913 with no deaths or significant injuries except to the principal, Miss Bennet. She returned to find some people who had not evacuated the building. Her scalp was burned, and in most pictures, you will see her wearing a hat, covering up what happened to her.
**** The Sculpture Project is raising money to erect a statue of Miss Bennet on Main St. in front of the school. Here is the link: https://manchester-ct.blog/2023/01/16/happy-birthday-elisabeth/
Next, on the left, where it says Firestone, that used to be Watkins’s Furniture, and then it became Keith’s Furniture, and finally Pinewood Furniture, owned by the Firestone family. They still own it. And now it’s an art studio and cafe. It’s a great example of a building that was reused instead of being torn down. Unlike the north end of town, where buildings were demolished, many buildings downtown were saved and repurposed.
The Guinipero Family built these buildings on Main St. At one time, there was a bakery and a tavern. The family lived in the house, which is still a private home.
When many buildings on Main St. were initially built, the first floor was retail and had a huge plate glass window. And then upstairs, the second floor would house professional offices, dentists, doctors, and lawyers, and maybe a dressmaker would be up there. And then, on the top floors, apartments, and some of the apartments were quite grand, overlooking beautiful downtown Main Street in Manchester. Over the years, many of those apartments have been broken up into smaller places, and there’s not much retail in downtown Manchester. One building had the third floor removed, possibly to reduce the taxes.
This building was the Orford Hotel and later Marlow’s Department Store. When it was the Orford Hotel, there was a huge restaurant on the first floor, hotel rooms on the second floor, and a ballroom on the top floor. Most people on tour remembered Marlow’s and that you could buy anything there. Today you might have to search the farthest corners of the internet to find an item that, back in the day, you could just walk into Marlow’s and ask Mr. Marlow if they had it. There was a chance the thing might have a layer of dust on it, but it was most likely on a shelf somewhere. When Mr. Marlow sold the business, the remaining inventory was sold to the Vermont Country Store.
The final stop on the tour was the Full Gospel Interdenominational Church which used to be the State Theater. The church has been housed in this old theater since 1974. The theater opened in June 1925 and was for live theater with a large stage and an orchestra pit. In the 1940s, it was run by the Warner Brothers and became a movie theater. The church has kept the theater seats and sconces from that time. No pictures were allowed to be taken inside the theater. It is a beautiful building with a mezzanine and balcony.
Joe McCluskey (Olympic Medalist from Manchester) and his brother John were Irish Tenors who were paid to sing at the theater when they were teenagers.
**** You can learn more about Joe McCluskey and the first sculpture completed by the sculpture project here. https://manchester-ct.blog/2021/09/18/the-sculpture-project/
This year is Manchester’s Bicentennial. Susan Barlow is leading 23 History walks to celebrate. More information is available here. http://www.manchesterhistory.org/Booklet23WalksWeb.pdf