A Tale of Two Cities




Concord, N.H., hums with political power while tipping its hat to shoppers and sightseers. Stay-at-home moms grip strollers in the coffee shops behind representatives, senators and future presidents. It's one of those rare towns where, on Main Street, pedestrians really rule.

Call it a Tale of Two Cities. By day, during the week, Concord is definitely the seat of New Hampshire government. Schoolchildren flock and gather on the grounds of the State Capitol building with its golden dome and awesome statues.

Lawyers, legislators and suited lobbyists gather at local eateries for lunch and negotiations, and duck into one of the many boutiques, galleries and gifts shops for a stealth shopping trip before it's back to business. But now Concord is more than just that. Through the effort of downtown organizers and devoted residents, Concord, in the words of one local resident, "no longer rolls up its sidewalks when the sun sets and the weekend comes."

It becomes a for-real arts and shopping destination with theater, live music, museums, exhibits, art movies, independent bookstores, charming eateries and specialty stores enough to keep locals and tourists sticking around long after the Statehouse closes.

Both Concords are vibrant. And both are worth a visit. This being the celebration season we'll start with the shopping-dining-arts-destination Concord.

Arts

Many New Hampshire cities and towns have tried to breathe new life into their downtowns, having to compete with mega shopping malls and multiplexes for foot traffic. Concord has done that and then some.

Concord is home to the Capitol Center for the Arts. Opened on South Main Street in 1927, the Capitol Theatre, with its opulent Egyptian décor, was a prime stop on the vaudeville circuit, and later a movie house and concert hall. It was on the brink of destruction by the late 1980s, but the city rallied to raise funds and renovate the old beauty, and since 1995 the Capitol Center for the Arts with its 1,300-plus seats has emerged as a prime entertainment venue with everything from opera to pop music concerts, Broadway shows and dance.

It's also a theater with a social conscience. Each year, approximately $10,000 in tickets is donated to organizations serving disadvantaged children and families. Upcoming shows include Christine Lavin and the Milestones, Dec. 6; Rockin' Oldies Spectacular, Dec. 7; author and NPR personality David Sedaris, Dec. 9; the New Sigmund Romberg Orchestra's "A Viennese Christmas," Dec. 12; the Capitol Steps, Jan. 10; The Pink Floyd Experience, Jan. 29; and "Footloose: the 10th Anniversary Tour." A complete schedule and ticket information can be found at www.ccanh.com.

But the Capitol Center isn't the only venue for live entertainment in Concord. The city and volunteer residents also rallied to keep The Concord City Auditorium ("The Audi" for short) on Prince Street alive and well and thriving in the capital (www.concordcityauditorium.org). The 850-seat Audi is an architectural charmer with its gilded proscenium arch and stained-glass windows. About 100 events are staged each year, including music, dance and poetry performances.

At the 150-seat Annicchiarico Theater in the basement of a Concord Housing Authority Building at 1 Thompson St., the Concord Music Club has maintained a low-cost theater space for nearly 50 years. The theater is named for Angela Annicchiarico, a prominent local piano teacher who died in a fire.

And if supporting four live entertainment venues doesn't prove Concord's commitment to the arts, the construction of the three-screen Red River Theatres on 11 South Main St. last year surely clinched the deal (www.redrivertheatres.org). Motivated by the closing of two movie art houses in the city, Concord cinema lovers banded together to form the non-profit theater, named for the 1948 Howard Hawks classic film about an epic journey. The theater screens independent films, especially those made in New England, and movies of social and artistic importance that might not be shown in mainstream theaters. Red River also hosts film discussions and the SNOB (Somewhere North of Boston) Film Festival (www.snobfilmfestival.org). Go next door to Gibson's, Concord's only independent bookstore, and you're likely to find a book display that relates to whatever film is being shown (www.gibsonsbookstore.com).

There is also a vital visual arts scene in Concord. The Kimball-Jenkins Estate on North Main Street, housed in what looks like a life-sized Victorian dollhouse - built in 1882 - is home to two art galleries and an art school, offering workshops and classes to children, teens and adults (www.kimballjenkins.com). If you drop by you can see students throwing pots or learning to draw in the studios.

For more than two decades, the McGowan Fine Arts Gallery on 10 Hills Ave. has exhibited and sold works from established New England artists (www.mcgowanfineart.com). Upcoming exhibits include "Alison Goodwin: Recent Works," whimsical serigraphs and paintings from the New England artist, which will hang from Dec. 2, 2008-Jan. 2, 2009 with an opening reception Dec. 5

The League of N.H. Craftsmen has its headquarters and a gallery on 205 North Main St., where "Through the Looking Glass," a juried show of glass works by League members, will be held from now until Dec. 12 (www.nhcrafts.org/exhibits_events/gallery205.html). Concord is also home to a League of N.H. Craftsmen retail store on 36 North Main St., where juried artisans throughout the state sell their crafts, including "Evergreen Dream," a hand-crafted jade green glass ornament by Jeff Lamy and Erica Steinmetz of Bedford, which has been chosen as this year's League annual holiday ornament.

And Capitol Craftsman on North Main Street specializes in hand crafts from New Hampshire and throughout the country (www.capitolcraftsman.com).

This year for the first time Concord artist Katy Brown started a Concord Arts Market on Capitol Street on Summer Saturdays (www.concordartsmarket.com). It was held at the same time and place as the farmers market and she brought in musicians to create "more than just a place to see and buy art, but to create a gathering space."

"It went really well," says Brown, 33, a graduate student and seamstress who creates handcrafted purses. Brown was also a manager of SoWa, an open farmers and artisan market in Boston. It went so well Brown plans to run the Arts Market again in June 2009.

Brown, who has lived in Concord for four years, feels it's not only important for artists to connect to one another but also to connect artists to their community. She also thinks that as a capital city, Concord should be a draw for artists statewide.

"I think Concord had become that place for the arts, but it kind of snuck up on us. There was the Capitol Center for the Arts, Red River - all of these things happening - and then all of a sudden you look around and now we have all this stuff going on here. And the city has just formed an arts task force to look into promoting a creative economy. So it's really all coming together. Concord as a capital city should be an arts destination. And I think that's what's happening."

The good thing about having an arts-active city is that it's good for business, like shopping and dining out.

Dining

You won't go hungry in Concord. There are lots of little self-serve delis and bakeries, fine dining, ethnic restaurants and chain eateries like Olive Garden, Applebee's and Panera Bread in the malls outside downtown.

On and around Main Street there are plenty of places to pick up lunch or a coffee and pastry to go including the Brown Bag Deli at 1 Eagle Square, Bread & Chocolate at 29 South Main St., Madeleines Elegance Defined (they really do have madeleines that would catapult Proust into the past, www.madeleinesed.com) at 124 North Main St., Caffenio's, also on North Main, In a Pinch Café and Bakery 146 Pleasant St. and Still in a Pinch at 2 Pillsbury St. (www.inapinchcafe.com)

For casual dining there are restaurants like the Common Man (www.thecman.com) at 25 Water St. with arguably the best white chocolate bread pudding on Earth. Ethnic restaurants can be found in the form of Hermano's (www.hermanosmexican.com) and Margaritas(www.margs.com) for Mexican food, Angelina's (with to-die-for olive tapanade butter served with the bread basket, www.angelinasrestaurant.com) for Italian, and Chen Yang Li (www.chenyangli.com) for Asian cuisine and Bistro Rustica for authentic Mediterranean, just to name a few. And for pub food, you can't beat places like the Barley House, right across the street from the Capitol with its micro-brewed beers and yummy gratis hummus and breadsticks (www.thebarleyhouse.com). For fine dining head to the Granite Restaurant and Bar at the Centennial Inn on Pleasant Street. Its open for lunch and dinner, offering some of the best cuisine in the region (www.graniterestaurant.com).

Shopping

With stomachs full, it's time to shop. Concord has its shopping malls, like Steeplegate (www.steeplegatemall.com) and those in the Ft. Eddy and Loudon Road areas, but downtown is the place for one-of-kind shops.

Gondwana Divine Clothing Company (www.gondwanashop.com) has specialized in high-quality, ecologically sustainable and fair-traded clothing and accessories since 1995. World music plays on the sound system while visitors touch the fine, natural fabrics of the eclectic choice of women's clothing, gifts and accessories.

In fact a lot of downtown Concord is green. There's The Real Green Goods: The Earth-Friendly Department Store (www.realgreengoods.com) on 35 South Main St., which sells everything from environment-friendly cleaning products to book totes made out of burlap coffee sacks to hand-quilted throws made from recycled cotton Indian saris.

Across the street at 24 South Main is the Concord Cooperative Market, a natural food store, with the Celery Stick, an in-house café (www.concordfoodcoop.coop).

Downtown has a lot to offer in the way of specialty food and drink markets like Butter's Fine Food and Wine on 70 North Main Street (www.buttersfinefood.com) and Barb's Beer Emporium, at 208 N. Main St., the former site of Capitol Convenience, where Barb Lambert stocks pints and six packs from microbreweries throughout the world.

For the past 81 years, children and chocolate-obsessed adults alike have visited the Granite State Candy Shoppe on 13 Warren St. (http://nhchocolates.com). You can still watch candy makers hand dip chocolates through big windows.

And if you just happen to run out of your favorite brand of Swedish pickled herring or need to replace a piece of Portmeirion pottery, check out Viking House at 19 North Main St., which specializes in imported gifts and food from northern Europe (www.vikinghouse.com).

You can even get a custom fitted undergarment at Zoe & Company Professional Bra Fitters on 92 North Main St. (www.zoeandcompany.com)

And speaking of unusual gifts, you might want to visit Corrections Creations, a shop that sells merchandise crafted by prison inmates, just north of downtown on North State Street across the street from the State Prison for Men (www.nh.gov/nhdoc/nhci/c_creations).

You can find leather motorcycle saddlebags for $175, Adirondack chairs for $157 and a maple sofa table for $275. There were hand-carved wooden spoons and spatulas for $12, wooden measure boxes for as little as $15 and for those with a sense of humor, ashtrays fashioned from New Hampshire license plates - a steal for $3.

But your money is no good here. The store only accepts checks and credit cards. The explanation? "We've been robbed three times," says a clerk.

Sometimes the best gifts can be found in the past. By that we mean shopping for antiques and collectibles. Hey, it's not like Aunt Harriet is going to get two authentic Dough Boy helmets for Christmas this year. Concord Antique Gallery on the corner of Storrs and Depot Streets has 155 dealer booths to browse for retro tchotchkes like a vintage Remington typewriter (remember typewriters?) and beaded Victorian evening bags. It doesn't hurt that hot coffee and tea is always on hand (http://concordantiquegallery.com).

For the Munchkin on your list, visit French's Toy Shop on 10 North St., which has a huge selection of fine European toys like German Playmobil and Papo toys from France. And don't forget the Cosmo Kramer in your life. Castro's Backroom at 5 Depot St. has a fine selection of cigars and comfy seats to sit in while lighting up (www.frenchstoy.com).

A downtown shopping association called Main Street Concord was formed seven years ago and has initiated such events as Halloween Howl and the upcoming Midnight Merriment, the official kick-off to the holiday season, which will be held this year on December 5 from 5 p.m. to midnight when shops are open late, carolers and horse-drawn hay rides hit Main Street and Santa Claus makes an appearance (www.mainstreetconcord.com).

There's also been an effort by dozens of downtown businesses to keep their doors open on Thursday evenings - the traditional downtown shopping night in New Hampshire.

But there is more to life than shopping, eating and the arts. There's history, too, and that brings us to the other Concord - historical Concord.

History

Historical Concord is centered around the Statehouse. Built between 1816-1819 in the Greek Revival style, it's home to the General Court with 424 members, the largest state Legislature in the country and is the nation's oldest Statehouse in which the Legislature still occupies its original chambers. It's on more than two and half acres of land dotted with statues of New Hampshire greats like Daniel Webster, General John Stark, John P. Hale and the only Granite State prez - Franklin Pierce, whose home, the 1838 Pierce Manse, is about a mile away on 14 Penacook St.

The Statehouse is open Monday to Friday. Self-guided and guided tours are available. If you haven't been there since fourth grade or have never been there it's well worth the visit, if not for the Hall of Flags itself.

The Eagle Square Hotel, across the street from the Statehouse, was a center of political activity for 135 years. Andrew Jackson, Charles Lindbergh and Eleanor Roosevelt once stayed there. It has been redeveloped as the Eagle Square Marketplace with offices, a few shops, a deli and a restaurant.

A focal point of the development is the Museum of New Hampshire History, 6 Eagle Square, which is housed in a stone warehouse from the 19th century. The museum is particularly kid-friendly and draws dozens of school groups every week. Exhibits include a dugout canoe, a replica of an Abenaki hut and a Concord Coach manufactured in town in the 19th century and familiar as the stagecoach in many cowboy movies. Particularly popular with youngsters is the "mystery stone," an intricately-carved polished rock the size of a baseball. The stone is reputed to have been dug up by a construction worker near Lake Winnipesaukee in 1872. Its origin is unknown. Some have speculated that it was created by Native Americans; others are of the belief that it is Celtic in origin. You can make your own determination, then buy a T-shirt bearing its mysterious image (www.nhhistory.org/museum.html ).

There is a prototype of the Segway people mover, which was invented in Manchester, and a St. Louis Cardinals jersey won by pitcher Bob Tewksbury, the pride of Concord.

Upstairs are magnificent wall-sized paintings of Franconia Notch and Crawford Notch by Edward and Thomas Hill and an 1881 forest scene by William Preston Phelps. And visitors may climb up a couple of flights of stairs to a replica of a 1930s-era fire lookout tower that rises above the museum and has a panoramic view of the city.

Two historic houses - the Federal-style Upham-Walker House, (www.geocities.com/uphamwalkerhouse/index.html.html) 18 Park St., built in 1831, and the Mary Baker Eddy Historic House, 62 North State St., where the founder of the Christian Science Church lived from 1889 to 1892 - are open by appointment (www.longyear.org)

At the Christa McAuliffe Planetarium, 2 Institute Dr. (ww.starhop.com), named for the late New Hampshire teacher-astronaut, several shows allow you to enjoy the winter sky without having to slip on your long johns. The "Tonight's Sky" show changes daily and captures the phases of the moon, the Milky Way and the constellations one might see that day. Other shows at the planetarium focus on black holes, the dawn of the Space Age and a trip to the planets and their satellites.

Outdoors people may want to visit the Discovery Room at the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department on Hazen Drive. The free exhibit includes educational displays on Granite State flora and fauna with a trout habitat and a mockup of a beaver pond as well as a life-sized model of a moose and its calf (www.wildlife.state.nh.us).

Or they might want to stop by the Susan N. McLane Center - and Silk Farm Sanctuary on Silk Farm Road -New Hampshire Audubon's longest established center and home to its operations. There are exhibits, live animals (including a bald eagle, a red-tailed hawk, a peregrine falcon, two screech owls and a barred owl), several miles of hiking trails and a nature store. Admission is free (www.newhampshireaudubon.org/center_mcla.php).

And all around the city are opportunities for hiking, picnicking, fishing and boating.

If you decide to spend the night in the state capital, there are several commercial hotels in town, but history lovers might like the Centennial Inn on Pleasant Street, a magnificent, multi-turreted Victorian brick building that was originally a home for the aged built in 1892 and recently restored. NH

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