By MARY O'NEILL
In Greek mythology, a phoenix is a long-lived bird that is cyclically reborn when it obtains new life from the ashes of its predecessor. Laconia arises from its past as the phoenix of the Lakes Region. Nestled on the shores of three of N.H.'s largest lakes – Winnipesaukee, Winnisquam, and Opechee – with the picturesque Winnipesaukee River running alongside its downtown area, Laconia continues to be a very desirable place to live and work. Sturdy brick and stone structures left from the age of industry provide it a strong backbone for new life.
Laconia was incorporated as a town in 1855 from lands at Weirs, Lakeport, Meredith Bridge, and part of Gilmanton. There had been a settlement of sorts in the area since the 1770s. By the early 1800s, there were several houses, stores, and workshops. In 1797, the first mills were introduced with the building of a dam harnessing the waterpower from the river flowing through town. With the coming of the railroad in the 1840s, larger industries were established and Laconia flourished for 100 years until steam and electricity replaced hydropower and many of the industries closed or moved out. From these vacated buildings of an era gone by, vibrant businesses have arisen.
The railroad station on Veterans' Square was built in 1892. It was designed by renowned New York architect, Bradford Gilbert, who designed what was considered New York City's first skyscraper. With its impressive entrance and vaulted rotunda, the station has now become a premier jewelry shop, Kramer and Hall, family owned and operated Prescott Florist, and two popular eateries, Burrito Me and Local Eatery. Brian D. from Maryland, in a review on the world's largest travel site, TripAdvisor, says Local Eatery is "worth going out of your way for." Across the street from the station, the Baptist Church built in 1836 has recently been extensively renovated to become the sister of the Holy Grail in Epping, an Irish pub and restaurant. On New Salem Street, freight buildings built in 1890 as a track-side depot for Pitman Manufacturing of Laconia, one of the largest manufacturers of hosiery in N.H. in the 1800s, have been transformed into Pitman's Freight Room, a trendy venue for weddings, functions, and musical events with a capacity of 200. Robert M. calls this place "outstanding...the musicians are often world renowned and always exceptional."
The Belknap Mill built in 1832 is listed on the National Register of Historic Landmarks. This one-time textile mill is the oldest structure of its type in the U.S. The mill's water-powered wheelhouse from the early 1800s, which once supplied electricity to downtown, is the last of its kind in the U.S. According to the Belknap Mill Society webpage, it "was the first organization to receive federal funds, and an award from the National Trust, for preserving an industrial structure." LIFE and Yankee Magazine wrote of the efforts to save the mills. Now, the Belknap Mill is a popular place to hold art exhibits, craft and quilt shows, and weddings. Next door, a second hosiery mill building constructed in 1853 and once owned by John Busiel, serves as beautiful office space for professional firms.
In the late 1800s, Laconia Car Company was the largest manufacturer in the area. Founded as a car shop in 1848, at its height the company produced hundreds of luxury passenger cars a year for trolley and rail service. It was located in the center of Laconia with over 50 buildings covering 7 acres. When the business closed in the 1930s, a large portion of the property was purchased in 1934 by Allen-Rogers. This wood turning company, famous for supplying the White House with decorative wooden eggs for its yearly children's Easter egg hunt, closed in 1999 and its buildings are being turned into popular riverfront condominiums. Beautifully restored with exposed beams and wood floors, the units sell quickly. The latest phase, which involves the conversion of another building into additional units, is underway. Many of the other enormous brick buildings of the car company have provided downtown professionals and businesses with space for many years.
Along Main Street, stately brick buildings house many small businesses and shops worth visiting. Some have been there for many years, including Greenlaw's Music, established over 60 years ago. Others have sprung up recently. One in particular, Wayfarer Coffee Roasters, takes first time visitors by surprise. Melanie F. from Toronto calls the place a "little gem...a beautiful quality place," and Eleanor L. from San Francisco adds, "the coffee was out of this world...if I lived in the area this would be my go to place."
The transformation of old to new extends beyond the immediate downtown area. Scott & Williams, a leading manufacturer of knitting machines, moved from Boston to Laconia in 1910. One of its many buildings in Lakeport was resurrected into Lake Opechee Inn and Spa and O Steaks and Seafood. Across the street is Fratello's Ristorante in what used to be Lakeport National Bank, which was established in the late 1800s. Other surprising eats beyond the downtown area include the tapas restaurant and piano bar Tavern 27, which features a farm to table experience in a colonial house built in 1781, and Nothin' Fancy on Weirs Boulevard.
Surrounded by history and nestled amid three lakes, Laconia is a wonderful place for families, second-homers, and semi-retirees to live. There are beautiful well-established residential areas, many with community beaches, all located near downtown including the Shore Drive, Holman Street, Old North Main Street, and Morningside Drive neighborhoods. Even for those without private beaches, Laconia's residential areas are within walking distance or a short drive to beautiful public beaches. These include Opechee Park and Bond Beach on Lake Opechee, Bartlett Beach and Ahern Park on Winnisquam, and Weirs Beach on Winnispesaukee.
Laconia also has an abundance of planned residential areas. The 126-acre Taylor Farm has new life as a part of the 360-acre South Down Shores and Long Bay communities. South Down has approximately 490 properties, which are arranged within nineteen distinct villages. The community has 4,000 feet of shoreline on Lake Winnipesaukee and many amenities including sandy beaches, docks, tennis courts, skating pond, cross country ski trails, and walking trails. The sister community of Long Bay comprises approximately 100 acres with two beaches and 1,200 feet of shorefront along Paugus Bay. Wildwood Village is located in an attractive and long established neighborhood. Award winning architect Claude Miquelle designed these townhouses, and each includes deeded rights to a private natural sand beach on Lake Winnisquam. Breakwater Condominiums on Lake Winnipesaukee offer a quiet setting with amazing views of Paugus Bay. On Opechee, Mallard Cove and Country Club Shores offer two different styles of living coupled with lake access and next-door location to Laconia Country Club.
In the Weirs, condos and cottages are tucked in all corners. There are traditional condominium choices such as Fours Seasons and Evergreen Condominiums and smaller communities including Hi Spot and Holiday Bay Condos. The brand new Lake Houses at Christmas Island are luxury waterfront townhomes with westerly exposure and each has its own dock on Lake Winnipesaukee. Meredith Bridge and The Village at Winnipesaukee are a quick stroll to the Weirs boardwalk, arcades, and dock for the M.S. Mount Washington.
All said and done, it would be difficult to find another community such as Laconia. Almost as an island in the middle of three beautiful lakes, like a phoenix it is rising brilliantly from the ashes of its past. This rebirth is a reflection of the aspirations of the people who chose to see the potential, build their businesses, and make their home in Laconia.
For more information on the City of Laconia, visit its website and the websites of the Historical Society, Illustrated Laconian, and the Belknap Mill. Please feel free to visit www.rocherealty.com to learn more about the Lakes Region and its real estate market. Mary O'Neill is a sales associate at Roche Realty Group in Meredith and Laconia, NH and can be reached at (603) 366-6306.