REPRINTS


Thomas Weldon and the Downtown of Yore
by Susan Barlow, Manchester Historical Society

Thomas Weldon, M.D. (1861-1939), saw Manchester’s Downtown grow and prosper. Most of the vintage buildings that we admire in our Main Street business district were built during his lifetime.

After elementary school, young Weldon attended the Ninth District School (at the site of today’s Bennet Academy), so he would have visited Downtown during the construction of St. James Church, which began in 1875. St. James is the oldest church building that still stands in the Downtown area.

He started out in medical practice in 1885 in the Keating building at the corner of Main and Forest Streets, a building that is long gone, replaced by the Army and Navy Club, built after World War I.

Dr. Weldon would have witnessed Downtown’s business building boom: Keith Furniture in 1890 (now Pinewood Furniture), the Park building in 1893 (site of Sukothai restaurant and Silktown Antiques), and most of the rest of the extant buildings, right through to the 1930s.

The Weldon block, at about 901 Main Street, continues to serve businesses, and is a good example of vintage architecture. It was built about 1898, after an 1897 fire destroyed the previous building, the American Hotel, site of Manchester’s first movie-house, the Edison Theatre. Weldon and other “blocks” illustrate a common pattern of use:

• Retail stores (and sometimes saloons) were on the ground level, with plate glass windows to attract shoppers

• Professional offices and services were upstairs – doctors, tailors, lawyers, accountants, music teachers, stenographers, etc.

• Sometimes there were apartments and rooms for rent (bathroom down the hall) on the second and third floors, with the occasional upstairs ballroom.

For example, the Orford Hotel, built in 1894 and perhaps better known as Marlow’s department store, had a two-story amusement hall, 200-seat banquet hall, 75-seat restaurant, billiard hall, and ladies’ parlor. The halls were also used by local fraternal organizations, which were all the rage in the early part of the twentieth century.

The former Odd Fellows Building, erected in 1908 and demolished in 1982, had a ballroom and meeting hall upstairs. The Independent Order of Odd Fellows, a social and benevolent society, built this unique structure, which curved around the southeast corner of the intersection of Main and Center Streets. Like the Loyal Orange Lodge, which still operates Orange Hall nearby at 72 East Center Street, the Odd Fellows helped defray their costs by renting out space in areas of the building that they didn’t need. Over the years, the Odd Fellows building housed many businesses, including a grocery, soda shop, pharmacy, bakery, music store, pool hall, auto salesroom, and the Connecticut Business College.

The 1911 Tinker block, at the corner of Birch Street, had a large hall on the second floor – the Jewish Temple met there before the congregation had its own building, and old timers remember attending wedding receptions and other events in that hall. Dr. William Tinker had his offices upstairs from the stores in this red brick building with extensive brick decoration.

Weldon Block and Residence

Some proprietors lived in the same building as they worked, including Thomas Weldon, who had his offices on the second floor of 907 Main Street, and lived there too, until 1915 when he moved to Porter Street.

Downstairs, at 903 Main Street, was Weldon Drug Company, an enterprise begun by Dr. Weldon’s father, Thomas, Senior (1826-1910).

In 1925, Dr. Weldon’s son-in-law, Francis Miner, bought the drug store fixtures and leased the building; Miner had been working there since 1921, and had changed “the entire interior,” and enlarged it, adding “new fixtures of the latest type ... and in a short time it was enjoying an exceptionally fine business,” according to The Hartford Courant, January 18, 1925. The store was “the oldest established drug store in South Manchester.” The business was later sold to Jacob & George Sandals.

When I first read that Dr. Weldon had “moved up to 300 Porter Street,” I went to see the house. I figured it would be a large place, maybe a showplace, but the house no longer faces Porter Street. Additional research turned up the beautiful 5,500-square-foot house at 45 Wellman Road, originally reached by a long driveway from Porter Street, and surrounded by acres of gardens and fruit trees. Now the grounds are a comfy suburban neighborhood and Dr. Weldon’s home now houses apartments.

Dr. Weldon

The town loved Dr. Weldon, calling him the “dean of Manchester physicians,” and praising his caring manner and home visits to the sick. An 1898 Courant story tells of a poisoning incident in Manchester:

“The four young children of William Edge of High Street were taken violently ill Saturday night with symptoms of poisoning. Dr. Weldon was summoned and worked over them for several hours before they were out of danger. The life of the youngest, a child of two years, was despaired of but was finally saved. It is supposed that the trouble was caused by some cheese which the children had partaken of just before going to bed.”

Dr. Weldon saved the day in other Courant stories over the years, putting fifteen stitches into the head of motorcyclist Frank Rolston, thrown from his machine (1910).

Dr. Weldon also served the town as First Selectman (mayor), elected in 1903 and 1904. He was again elected to the Board of Selectmen in 1917 and served another six years.

In 1923, Thomas Quish praised Dr. Weldon in the book “Who’s Who in Manchester, Connecticut,” which tends to wax euphoric about the men, and yes they are all men, chosen to be included in the slim volume.

“To many families and to the town of Manchester, he is more than a family doctor – for he is considered an institution. Dr. Thomas Henry Weldon…was born in Oakland [the Oakland Street/Tolland Turnpike/Deming Road area of town] ... the third son of Thomas and Mary (Campbell) Weldon, both of whom came to this country from Ireland.”

He started school in Oakland, went to the Ninth District School in South Manchester, and graduated in 1880 from Hartford Public High School. Note that Manchester’s public high school wasn’t built until 1904.

The book goes on: “During his last college year he served as an interne in the Alms House and Workhouse, of New York City, on Blackwell’s Island. Here he came into intimate contact with poverty and misfortune, the experience doing much to mould opinions regarded now as fixed, concerning the charity that should be shown to those whose lot in life is not always cast in happy moulds.” After graduating from medical school in 1883, he served two years as an “interne” at Bellevue Hospital, and then returned to Manchester to begin his practice here. “Day in, day out, deep the snow, he has plodded his weary way out into it all to relieve the cries of those who suffered, and to ease from pain those stricken by the hand of disease or accident.”

The Courant’s 1939 obituary said that he practiced medicine for over 50 years, was one of the organizers of Manchester Memorial Hospital, and “at one time was a member of most of Manchester’s fraternal organizations.” “Men and women from all walks of life crowded into St. James’s Church Wednesday morning for funeral services of Dr. Thomas H. Weldon, dean of this town’s physicians, who died Sunday after a long illness.”

Weldon Drug

The building where Dr. Weldon had his offices for most of his career remained in the Weldon family until 1937, and the drug store retained the name Weldon for many years. A 1941 Courant ad in the “Help Wanted Male” classification sought a “Good soda and sandwich man; good hours; steady work; good pay for right man. Apply Weldon Drug Co. 901 Main St.” The building was renovated and expanded in 1938, 1943, 1954, and 1966, and was home to several businesses, including Regal’s men’s store from 1940 until 2001. The building has an unusual roof-line and gables, and despite its newer façade, you can detect the old decorative brick patterns on the alley side of the structure.

The Weldon building exemplifies Downtown’s reuse of buildings for new purposes and a first floor changed from store-front to office style. Fortunately for those who like architecture with character, the building maintains some of its vintage detail.

To see an example of this difference over a span of about 30 years, click these icons:    

Downtown on the National Register

I hope Dr. Weldon was proud of the Weldon block and the part he played in the establishment of Downtown. Our town can be proud, too, with our Downtown on the National Register of Historic Places. But as with anything old, there’s always the risk of someone wanting to demolish rather than preserve. In fact, part of our Downtown came close to demolition. Here’s how William Buckley describes it in “A New England Pattern: the History of Manchester, Connecticut,” published in 1973 by the Pequot Press:

“An ambitious plan for the redevelopment of the business section of Main Street was drawn up. The existing wide street from Myrtle to Forest was to become a pedestrian mall. A new wide roadway was to be constructed to the west, eliminating St. James Church and a number of other buildings. The whole cost was estimated to be about $17,000,000, with the federal government and the state paying most of it. The town’s share was to be about $2,000,000. By a small margin the voters rejected this plan in a referendum in October 1966. A new, simpler plan never reached the referendum stage.”

Downtown History Walks

The Manchester Historical Society frequently leads walking tours of Downtown with historic commentary, and conducted a walking tour starting at the Weldon Block and walking to Dr. Weldon’s home, about a two-and-a-half-mile round trip. Please check the page of this web site for the next such walk.

On many walks, participants reminisce about Downtown’s Thursday night shopping, strolling and socializing with friends. As high school students, they may have had jobs at the stores and businesses, telling wonderful stories of S&H Green Stamps and of dressing in their “Sunday best” to go shopping. Many people, of course, remember Weldon Drug, but few speak of Dr. Weldon and family, who once operated the drug store. One exception, however, who was a descendant of Dr. Weldon, provided the picture of Dr. Weldon's family, which you can see by clicking the icon at right.

Supplemental Article from the Hartford Courant edition of January 2, 1911

Contract Let For House

Dr. T.H. Weldon has let the contract to Gustave Schreiber for the new home which he is to build at Manchester Green. The plans for the house were drawn by L.D. Bayley of Hartford and the contract calls for the completion of the work by September, 1911, so that it will be ready for the doctor and his family to occupy when they return from their cottage at Crescent Beach, where they spend the summer each year. The house is to be very attractive and will be a two-story and a half building. The front will be 93 feet long, including the port cochere. It will contain on the ground floor, besides a large hall, a living room, music room, reception hall and reception room, a dining room and a kitchen. The upper part of the house will contain nine chambers, two baths and a balcony. In the cellar there will be a furnace room, a laundry and a cold storage. The building is to be located on one of the highest points in town and will command a fine view of Manchester.