“If these walls could talk…”

If you love old houses, you’ve probably had occasion to whisper this well-known phrase. If the walls of the Gresley Residence could talk, they’d have fascinating conversations to convey about life in this stately apartment building that has been sitting firmly in place for over a century. To appreciate the history of this Victorian era gem, it is helpful to take a look back through time and envision life in Manchester, NH in the early years of the 20th century. Immigrants were flowing into a city filled with employment opportunities, construction was booming, and merchants were expanding to meet the demands of a growing population. In short, the city was thriving, and had been for over six decades.

The city of Manchester was designed and built by the owners of Amoskeag Manufacturing Company, a cotton-textile firm which, formed in 1839, was the most dramatic example of the Industrial Revolution in New Hampshire. Plentiful supply of cotton and demands of a rapidly growing country rapidly vaulted the city’s production of textiles to rival Manchester, England. Industrialists’ vision that the area would become the “Manchester of America” came true by the mid-19th century when Manchester, NH became the largest cotton mill in the world. When cotton supply dwindled during the Civil War, Amoskeag Manufacturing Company turned to production of muskets, and then to trains and fire engines. Immigrants arrived to work in the mills, the city grew, and neighborhoods expanded. As the 19th century gave way to the 20th, a plot of land along Chestnut Street north of downtown Manchester changed hands a few times. In November of 1903, Jennie Willey sold the land to the Franklyn Park Land and Building Association, who then sold it less than a year later to Herman Maynard, who in turn sold it to French Canadian immigrant Edwin Lee Gresley on March 29, 1911.

At this time, Gresley was already a successful businessman with his thriving E.L. Gresley Furniture Company located downtown at 1054 Elm Street. Gresley also owned the stately Pillar Manor Apartments on Hanover Street, built around 1904. In the spring of 1911, Gresley was ready to build another impressive apartment building at 669 Chestnut Street that would look very much like the Pillar Manors in architectural grandeur, but on an even larger scale. In May and June of 1911, water and sewer lines were laid to service his new apartment building. On July 26, 1911, Gresley drew up an indenture with his neighbor and fellow property owner, Isaac Ford, granting Ford use of water lines from Gresley’s property to Ford’s property.

By 1912, Amoskeag Manufacturing Company was producing an astonishing 50 miles of woven cloth per hour and peak production continued through WW I, while the mills supplied material to the government. After the war, though, demand declined, the mills struggled with labor issues, and the Great Depression worsened the situation.

It appears that Gresley was an astute businessman who also had impeccable timing. In 1926, city records cited 669 Chestnut land value at $5,500 and building value at $59,500. He sold the Gresley Apartments to Nettie Putnam in 1928, shortly before the Great Depression descended on America. By 1932, 669 Chestnut land was still valued at $5,500, but the building had dropped in value to $44,500. By that time, though, Gresley and his wife, Katherine, had retired to sunny Los Angeles. They are buried in Forest Lawn Memorial Park (Glendale), not far from the final resting place of folks like Elizabeth Taylor, Walt Disney, and Clark Gable.

One can imagine that the early Depression years held challenges for Nettie Putnam, as she held on to the Gresley Residence until 1934, then sold it to Louis Vogel. In 1935 Vogel purchased several tracts of land in this neighborhood from the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company, as this once thriving company was forced to sell off assets prior to filing for bankruptcy and closing the mills on Christmas Eve, 1935. One of those tracts, referred to as Amoskeag Manufacturing’s Lot #3917 eventually became the Gresley Residence’s parking lot.

Louis Vogel’s son, Stanley Vogel, took ownership of the Gresley Residence in 1947, thus keeping the property in the Vogel family until Stanley and Lillian Vogel sold it to Eugene and Yvonne Bouchard in June of 1971.

For the next 27 years, Eugene Bouchard lovingly cared for the building so well that his wife, Yvonne, said he jokingly called it “his mistress.” Bouchard kept a full-time maintenance staff on hand to work on the Gresley and his other Manchester area properties. Residents remember often seeing Eugene and Yvonne at 669 Chestnut, either working on building improvements or visiting the families who rented their apartments. Yvonne worked side by side with her husband, decorating and updating apartment units, collecting rent on Friday evenings, and shoveling a lot of snow. She has fond memories of those years. “I loved it!” she said. “My husband told me I was the cheapest painter and wallpaper-er he could find.”

Historic photos taken by 36-year resident Mike MacLeod

Sadly, Eugene Bouchard died shortly after retiring and selling the property to Thomas Maddox in 1998. Maddox owned the property until he sold it to Pierre Peloquin and Don Hebert in 2004. Peloquin, who built a large property management company in Manchester, began his work career as a paper boy, delivering papers in the Gresley properties’ neighborhoods. Peloquin became well acquainted with Eugene Bouchard, and credits him with being influential in getting him into the real estate business.

In 2000, Manchester Historic Association held a “People’s Choice Award” contest designed to foster interest in historic preservation. The Gresley Residence won that award, besting thirty-six buildings or neighborhoods that were nominated. According to a representative of the Manchester Historic Association, “residents of the Gresley apartment building mounted an energetic campaign to win the award,” adding, “It seemed like every resident of the building called in their vote, and they asked all their friends and relatives to vote as well.”

Truly, if the walls of the beautiful old Victorian building could talk, they could tell us a lot of stories about the residents that called this place their home. They could tell us about a 1908 M.I.T. civil engineering graduate who, in 1912, rented a brand-new apartment in the Gresley after he moved to Manchester to work at the W.H. McElwein Shoe Company. (When they opened their doors in 1912, this shoe company became the largest shoe factory in the United States.) Or they could tell us about Air Force officers and families who lived there during the WW II years when the Manchester Airport, then known as Grenier Field, was a beehive of activity to support the war cause. Or, maybe they’d tell some secrets about a French Ambassador who resided for a time in one of the deluxe balcony units.

Because this Manchester treasure is not talking, the Hillsborough County Registry of Deeds, Manchester Historic Association, and Manchester City Library have been consulted, as well as previous owners and others who have knowledge of this grand old lady who sits at 669 Chestnut Street and looks much the same today as she did in 1911.

Still, much must be left to the imagination about what transpired here in the past century. Romance, quiet conversations on the front porch, parties on the balconies, neighbors meeting, families gathering? Surely all of the everyday fundamentals of life took place here while our country marched through the decades. The Gresley Residence is just one thread in the tapestry of Manchester, NH, but it has been a source of pride for the community and all of those associated with this property since its construction.

Edwin Lee Gresley literally laid a solid foundation of neighborly goodwill when the first water lines to the Gresley Residence were installed in 1911, and surely all of the owners have felt the same pride and responsibility that was the hallmark of Eugene and Yvonne Bouchard’s years of stewardship. The Menning family currently owns the property, having purchased it from Pierre Peloquin and Don Hebert in July of 2015. They are committed to restoring or enhancing the charming features original to the building, such as the hardwood flooring, decorative woodwork, and leaded glass windows. The stunning stained-glass doors have been restored to their original beauty, and continue to highlight the magnificent front entrance that is framed by stalwart Corinthian columns. A new sign in the front of the building draws attention to the grand entrance and replicates the intricate design features visible on the building’s columns, brackets, and cornice. Ornamental trees grace the front yard, and the Gresley’s back yard is now a spacious garden patio.

The Gresley Residence is poised to continue its regal presence for many years to come, the epitome of architectural excellence, and a source of pride for owners, residents, and the community. Who knows what history is yet to be written?