EDITOR’S NOTE: Imagine Nashua: Then & Now is a weekly photo column by Don Himsel. Each week, he will feature an old photo within a more recent photo, along with the story behind it.
Fifty-eight years ago today, the National Guard Armory, then on Canal Street, burned.
“The blaze, the city’s worst in the past decade, was discovered shortly before 10 a.m. An explosion reportedly caused by hot air pressure mounting from the fire within, rocked homes nearby when it blew out two armory doors and shattered windows on the Grove Street side of the building,” John Stylianos wrote in The Nashua Telegraph.
Forty kids who were attending a Sunday school class at the Unitarian Universalist Church next door were evacuated.
“Senior Deputy Ralph A. Aldrich who supervised the efforts of the firefighters said defective wires in a sub-cellar section probably caused the blaze. The fire reached spectacular proportions and was visible for miles,” the story continued. “Flames belched from the roof and windows along the building as they ate their way through some 30 rooms and gutted the interior. Flames licked the brick outer structure as they poured through windows along with thick billows of dark-grey smoke.”
The second floor was heavily damaged. About a $1 million worth of equipment and clothing had been stored inside. The army trucked away salvaged weapons and communications gear and a Jeep was saved.
The original part of the building was built in 1890; the state purchased it in 1907 and added onto it in the mid 1930s. The building was not insured.
Officials quickly gathered to discuss plans for a new armory. Among the sites on the table were the old fairgrounds, Greeley Park east of Concord Street, and an area near what is now Exit 5 of the F.E. Everett Turnpike.
The Greeley Park site was an early favorite. The will that provided the land to Nashua stipulated it was to be used for “recreation, farming and public institutions.” The armory was considered a public institution, but the city would only lease the land for the project. Burnham was proposing a $1 per year lease for 99 years.
The Nashua New Hampshire Foundation offered the turnpike site if the state built a road, which would then allow the foundation to further open parcels for development.
Finally, a site on Daniel Webster Highway in South Nashua was chosen. The new building, built with state and federal money, was dedicated in January 1960.
The fire allowed the Unitarian Universalist Church to expand. They were looking to add classroom space, having outgrown the parsonage, which was built in 1929. According to the church’s online history, Philip Ellis Stevens, chairman of the building committee, gave this speech at the building’s dedication Sept. 27, 1959:
“On Sunday, February 3, 1957, one of the most spectacular fires in recent years occurred when the National Guard Armory at the corner of Canal and Grove Streets burned. Actually, this was not as tragic an event as in the case of most fires, inasmuch as the New Hampshire National Guard was dissatisfied with the building for their Nashua operations, and it resulted in this property becoming available to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Nashua for the erection of the new church school building, which we are dedicating today.
“Following the fire, the Armory property was purchased by the church, and on February 27, 1958, a contract was let to the Lawrence Building Wrecking Company for the demolition of the old armory. The new school building is a two-story structure of contemporary design. Much credit is due the architects for the splendid manner in which the new building and landscaping tie in so beautifully with the church and Parish House, each of which was built during a previous era.”
Don Himsel can be reached at 594-6590, DHimsel@nashuatelegraph.com., or @Telegraph_DonH.