The Architectural Jewels of Rochester, New Hampshire: A History of the Built Environment
The History Press, 2009, 192 pp., $21.99 paperback
Interesting books come from unlikely places. Rochester, New Hampshire, the subject of this paperback, is an old mill town of about 30,000 that is little known even among New Englanders. Yet it turns out that Rochester abounds with buildings worth noticing. The town’s planner for the past 14 years, new urbanist Michael Behrendt adeptly uses Rochester’s architecture as a springboard to a larger topic: the making of good communities wherever they happen to be.
“We have come to accept a world with unsightly buildings and a diminished public realm as our inevitable fate,” Behrendt says on the opening page. “We do not believe it can be otherwise because, as a nation, we have forgotten what the face of beauty in the built environment looks like. Yet, in spite of the ravages of modern society, we have an extraordinary patrimony all around to help us relearn.”
With that, Behrendt embarks on a humor-leavened tour of Rochester’s architectural styles (from Georgian and Federal to Modern); its building types (from Capes, Colonials, and bungalows to churches, mills, and barns); and other architectural elements, including signs, doors, front porches, and stone walls. Though all of the examples — presented in black-and-white photos — are from a single community that was first settled in 1728, they possess enough range and quality to serve as an architectural guide to much of the northeastern US.
Because of the incisive and amiable way in which Behrendt discusses them, Rochester’s buildings could inspire readers to look more closely at their own town or city. Behrendt deftly explains proportion, scale, harmony diversity, setbacks, terminated vistas, and other facets of architecture and planning. Among his qualifications, alluded to in tongue-in-cheek fashion: He attended Boston Architectural Center, where he “gleaned much about the history of architecture but soon realized, in the course of ruthless critiques, that I had entirely no talent for drawing or design. Voila! A city planner was born.”
He is a planner who sees beyond the more mundane functions of his job, and is intent on helping people realize their community’s potential. “Why should we assume that we are not capable of creating another Portsmouth, Newburyport, or Alexandria?” he asks. “The new urbanists have distilled the principles that underlie the appeal of the old places, and they are applying those standards to new projects across the country, albeit with a keen awareness of contemporary constraints.” Well said.