The 141-acre farm that famed statesman and New Hampshire native Daniel Webster described to his son as “the very sweetest spot on earth” is enjoying a new lease on life after many uses and years of uncertainty. A theme of retreat and rejuvenation runs through the long history of this place; it was used as a farm, retreat, orphanage, convent, and now a residential treatment facility for alcoholism and drug addiction called Webster Place Recovery Center.
An Unthinkable Plan
In 2005 the farm was included on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places when a developer acquired the property and proposed to build multiple housing units that threatened the future of the historic buildings and land. Threatened resources included a National Historic Landmark, the site of a 1755 fort, some of the best agricultural soils in the state, and nearly a mile of frontage along the Merrimack River.
Eleven buildings stand on the property: three wood frame farmhouses plus a cemetery from Webster’s era along with later brick dormitories, school buildings, and a chapel erected from 1873 to 1925 by the New Hampshire Home for Orphans and School of Industry.
The buildings and land were on the market for five years after the nuns left the property to consolidate their operations in Manchester, N.H. Buildings deteriorated, and a future that capitalized on the place’s history and assets seemed unlikely when the property was sold to a developer with plans for more than 100 housing units on the farmland.
Teamwork Pays Off
A call to action by neighboring farmer Dan Fife and Leigh Webb, president of the Franklin Historical Society, as well as a dedicated cadre of others interested in conservation and preservation; a building re-use study by the New Hampshire Preservation Alliance; and major commitment by the Land and Community Heritage Investment Program (LCHIP) led to the purchase of the property from the developer by the Trust for Public Land (TPL). TPL held the property off the market while the organization and its partners raised $2.5 million to secure the permanent protection of the historic, natural, and agricultural resources and find new owners for the farmland and campus.
New Hampshire entrepreneur Alex Ray responded to a search for a productive re-use of the buildings consistent with their historic character. Ray, owner of the Common Man family of restaurants, wanted to help shrink the long waiting lists for people seeking affordable and accessible treatment for alcoholism and drug addiction by opening up a center in New Hampshire.
“I’m not a philanthropist. I’m trying to build a business model that says you can grow a self-sustaining business and do it by giving back,” says Ray.
Ray is making it possible for the Franklin Historical Society to use Webster’s former home for meetings and exhibits, and other nonprofit uses add synergistic activity to the campus. Leigh Webb, president of the Franklin Historical Society, says, “The opportunity is to begin the evolutionary process of restoring this significant landmark and tribute to Daniel Webster while creating the permanent meeting place, archival storage, and museum of the Franklin Historical Society. As this project unfolds, the Society envisions not only an enhancement of the area’s economy by developing an attractive visitor destination, but also generating a greater appreciation of Franklin’s place in New Hampshire’s history.”
The New Webster Place
The clean-up and renovation for the Webster Place Recovery Center has created spaces of dignity and comfort. The work was also a celebration of environmental and economic sustainability. Whenever possible, building materials such as wood paneling and metal fire escapes, furnishings, and machinery were either donated or recycled on site. A new wood chip plant heats the buildings at one-third of the cost of the old oil system, and its ambient heat warmed a plant propagation space this spring.
Webster Place Recovery Center opened for business in February 2008, and the program’s new leaders are carrying forward Ray’s ideas. Executive director John Knowles treats the buildings as inspiration instead of simply program space. In a recent tour, he described how respect for history and place is a treatment theme, and emphasized the positive effect the property’s architectural and natural assets have on clients—a resident might write in a journal at a desk in front of a large, old window with views of farmed fields; tap maple trees and make syrup; or harvest strawberries and broccoli out of gardens that he or she has helped till.
“We are so pleased with how well Alex Ray’s vision for this property meshed with how this property has been used over the last two centuries,” says Colin Cabot, chairman of the Webster Farm Preservation Association (a group that helped raise funds for the property’s acquisition and stabilization) and board member of the Preservation Alliance. “He not only revived the historic structures but is continuing the agricultural, educational, charitable, and renewal activities that have defined this special place for over 200 years.”
Only about half the campus is in use right now, and Ray is open to other complementary users for the historic buildings who share his vision for the property.
Now and into the Future
As part of the plan to permanently protect the natural, cultural, and historic features of this property, the Preservation Alliance holds a preservation easement, which is designed to protect the buildings and the adjacent historic landscape while encouraging their rehabilitation and vibrant use in the years ahead. TPL conveyed the remaining 122 acres—farmland along the Merrimack River—to a neighboring farmer, Clarence Fife, and facilitated the transfer of a permanent conservation easement to the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests.
The total cost of the project, including purchase of the two easements, stabilization of the buildings, and related costs, was $2.5 million. In addition to LCHIP’s grant of $750,000, the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program (FRPP) awarded $500,000 to the effort, with the support of the New Hampshire congressional delegation. The New Hampshire Department of Fish and Game contributed $100,000. The remainder of the funds came from private donations and the sale of the restricted land and buildings. The partners raised nearly $850,000 in contributions from individuals, foundations, and businesses. U.S. Congressman Paul Hodes recently helped secure a matching Save America’s Treasures grant to help the Franklin Historical Society study and rehabilitate the Webster home.
A Brief History
Daniel Webster (1782–1852), a U.S. congressman, senator, presidential candidate, and secretary of state, is considered one of America’s greatest statesmen and orators. After studying at Dartmouth College and opening a law practice in Boscawen and later in Portsmouth, he maintained his family farm in Franklin, after his older brother Ezekiel’s death, as a place for political meetings, farming, and a retreat until his death in 1852. In 1871 the Webster family home on the property became what is believed to be the country’s first rural orphanage, housing children who had lost parents during the American Civil War. The Sisters of the Holy Cross later occupied the campus from 1960 until 2000.
About the Agencies
The Land and Community Heritage Investment Program (LCHIP) is an independent state authority that provides matching grants to New Hampshire communities and nonprofits in an effort to protect the state’s most important natural, cultural, and historic resources for the purposes of ensuring the perpetual contribution of these resources to the state’s economy, the environment, and the quality of life in New Hampshire. (www.lchip.org)
The New Hampshire Preservation Alliance is the state’s not-for-profit membership based historic preservation organization dedicated to preserving historic buildings, landscapes, and communities through leadership, advocacy, and education. (www.nhpreservation.org)
The Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests is the state’s oldest and largest nonprofit land conservation organization. (www.forestsociety.org)
The Trust for Public Land (TPL), established in 1972, specializes in conservation real estate, applying its expertise in negotiations, public finance, and law to protect land for people to enjoy as parks, greenways, community gardens, urban playgrounds, and wilderness. (www.tpl.org)
The Franklin Historical Society was established in 1981 with a mission “To promote and inculcate an interest in, and an understanding of, the history and development of the city of Franklin, Nh…” (www.histsoc.org/NH/FHS)