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Yesteryear: A Look At Weirs Beach Through The Years

Kathi Caldwell-Hopper - September 23, 2013





Winnipesaukee Gardens

The boardwalk and Lake Winnipesaukee Gardens at Weirs Beach.

“The Golden Era of Weirs Beach.”

“Irwin’s Winnipesaukee Gardens.”

These names conjure images of flappers, big bands, jazz, wooden boats, the Roaring ’20s, and early tourism. Indeed, one would be correct to imagine Weirs Beach as a mecca for fun-loving vacationers in the early 1900s right up until the Great Depression of the 1930s.

With the economic downfall after the stock market crash and subsequent financial struggles of the 1930s, vacationing was a luxury for many families. Years later, as the country slowly came out of the Depression, what was the Lakes Region, and specifically, Weirs Beach, faced with? How did it affect the iconic structures such as the huge Irwin’s Winnipesaukee Gardens, where couples danced summer nights away for years?

Even before the Depression years, Weirs Beach was constantly changing. About 1924, Bostonian Jim Irwin made a bold move when he built a huge structure on the spot where the New Weirs Hotel had been. The hotel had been destroyed in a fire and Irwin realized that something new and exciting could replace the hotel. As a musician, he knew people loved to attend concerts and they loved to dance. Why not combine both and offer a spot that would cater to the nightclub/music loving audience?

Irwin’s Winnipesaukee Gardens was born (it opened in 1925 to instant popularity) and it did much to change the landscape and direction The Weirs would head in the future. (Jim Irwin also promoted and brought tourist boating to the area in a big way; this also would attract more vacationers to the area in future years.)

Surprisingly, Weirs Beach was, after the Depression, a place that came under consideration for an early urban renewal effort. The project was entitled Plan for the Ultimate Redevelopment of the Weirs Waterfront. One can assume that some of the old structures at The Weirs were in less-than-stellar condition due to the Depression years. As the nation regained its strength, the plan to revitalize the area emerged in 1940. Most likely the goal was to draw more tourists to Weirs Beach to boost the economy.

The plan called for a huge waterfront amphitheatre to provide viewing space for boat shows and other programs. The public docks would be expanded to cover the whole Weirs waterfront. Irwin’s Winnipesaukee Gardens would not be touched, and its location next to the amphitheatre would have been advantageous for the owner of the nightclub.

The post-Depression years were cautious ones for most people. Spending a lot of money and approving such a drastic plan was viewed with trepidation. The plan did not happen in that form and it was not until 1947 that a new urban renewal proposal came about. It called for more dock space, as boating recreation was growing on Winnipesaukee.

In the late 1930s, a fire had razed the Weirs train station and the first Mount Washington steamship. The public wharf also burned in the fire.

The 1947 plan was entitled A Suggested Plan for the Redevelopment of the Weirs, N.H. It was an ambitious plan for its time and it would have drastically changed the face of the Weirs Beach area. Tourism, under the plan, would have been different as well. The biggest part of the redo of The Weirs would have been a gigantic pier to make the area a magnet for tourists and boaters.

Another part of the plan was a huge convention center that would have been located on the hillside overlooking Weirs Beach. On the water nearby, a bathing facility would have been surrounded by a deck.

The plan must have been costly and it was shelved for many years, until the 1960s, the decade when urban renewal efforts swept the country. At that time, there was little recognition of the importance of old buildings and historic structures. The movement to raze unstable or unused historic buildings and homes to make way for new offices, business and public buildings, highways, and parking lots was afoot. The same urban renewal push was changing nearby downtown Laconia into something modern and sleek.

In 1966, the Weirs urban plan called for new buildings, with the eradication of old structures. A great deal of history had been part of the Weirs landscape for many years. After the Civil War, a Veteran’s Campground had been erected at a special place near Lake Winnipesaukee. Tent sites and, later, larger meetinghouses were erected along Weirs Beach for veterans. For many years, veterans met for annual campouts to reconnect with fellow soldiers. The ornate buildings and campground were of great historic significance.

A Methodist campground also had been in existence for years. Many members spent their summers living in charming little cottages at the Methodist campground.

Other historical structures, such as the Winnipesaukee Pier, would have been razed to make way for the new plan’s changes.

As with the Laconia urban renewal, not only buildings would change but also the flow of traffic. New roads would be created, along with parking lots. The Route 3 bypass would start at a new bridge across the Weirs Channel. Channel Marine would be removed. New streets would connect with Tower Hill and Scenic Drive in a circular configuration.

Further, Lakeside Avenue would become a pedestrian mall. Tourists would take antique vehicle shuttles from outlying parking lots to shopping and recreation areas of The Weirs. A new pier and European-styled gardens, plus an amphitheatre, would be part of the ambitious plan.

Due to the failure of the proposed highway and bypass ideas to receive a go-ahead, the Weirs plan was not carried out at that time.

In the late 1970s, another version was called the Weirs Investment Plan. The plan would add parking and alleviate some traffic issues, with the idea of offering a shuttle service. Roads would not be replaced and the overall plan was far less massive and probably better-received by the public.

By the late 1970s/early 1980s, boating had become a big part of Lakes Region vacationing. More people owned boats and public dock space was an issue all over the area. The plan allowed for more dock space; a large wharf would connect the Winnipesaukee Pier building with the existing public dock area.

Further modernization efforts would include an amphitheatre, an idea that had been part of every plan from the 1940s onward. The outdoor seating/theatre area would have been located in a park not far from the heart of Weirs Beach.

Perhaps because of the strong negative feelings surrounding the urban renewal project in downtown Laconia that saw many historic buildings razed, the 1979 plan was highly sensitive to maintaining the history associated with Weirs Beach. A veteran’s museum and also an Indian museum were part of the plan. (Long ago, Native Americans had huge fishing villages at The Weirs.)

In 2007, a new plan was developed that took into consideration the suggestions of Laconia/Weirs Beach/Lakeport residents. The plan, entitled Laconia, New Hampshire – Three Neighborhoods, One Vision, proposed such changes as traffic circulation improvements; waterfront improvements that allowed for reconfiguring boat docks; rezoning of areas; encouragement of year-round businesses that would attract more tourists; and protecting the lake and lands at Weirs Beach.

Today, we see portions of the plan in place. A new fire station was built away from the direct heavy flow of traffic. The new station was built in the 1980s and is located on Route 11B/Lucerne Avenue.

A large component of the plan was a call for Weirs Beach businesses to spruce up the exterior of their structures. The Veteran’s Association has upgraded signs and made cosmetic improvements to its historic buildings. Other boulevard businesses have upgraded as well.

A recently completed traffic roundabout reflects the ongoing desire to upgrade the Weirs Beach area. The circle allows for a smoother traffic flow with the hope of alleviating some vehicular snarls during the busy summer months.

Happily, Weirs Beach residents and officials have not lost sight of the importance of history when moving into the future. There is respect for the historic buildings that line Weirs Boulevard and Lakeside Avenue. Perhaps Weirs Beach has learned from the past mistakes of downtown Laconia and other towns where urban renewal wiped out irreplaceable historic structures.

The need to improve and move forward is recognized at The Weirs, but drastic plans have been tempered with a need to respect the past and ensure that any changes do not take away the charm of the place where tourists have come for generations to enjoy boating, music, arcades, camping, and more.

For more information please visit the primary source for this article www.weirs beach.com 

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