Washington Block Facelift Moves Forward, While Bankruptcy Stalls Elevator Project

Blue plastic tarps began draping the historic Washington Block a year and a half ago during construction of a new elevator, designed to ultimately look like a clock tower. (WHAV News photograph.)

One of two million-dollar projects at the historic Washington Block in downtown Haverhill is again on track while another remains stalled in the aftermath of the bankruptcy of its contractor.

Haverhill Housing Authority commissioners Thursday approved an $87,000 change order for plumbing and electrical work related to the more than $1 million emergency repair of the building’s front. A week earlier, commissioners put off the vote to decide how best to navigate state law. Typically, public projects in excess of $25,000 are subject to competitive bidding.  Authority Executive Director Joseph A. Hart, however, learned of a solution from Attorney General Maura Healey’s office.

“The AG advised us to treat this situation as if we had asked for sub bids and no one responded,” Hart explained. “Then general contractor picks out anyone he wants.” He explained officials were unaware of the added costs because engineering specifications and drawings didn’t include enough detail. General contractor Aulson Company of Methuen is now free to complete the project.

$1.5 Million Elevator Project Remains Stalled After Contractor Bankruptcy

Architect’s rendering of new elevator rising above Washington Square.

The cost overrun is the latest setback for the 1878 building at 25 Washington Square, which saw an elevator contractor file for bankruptcy last February. As WHAV reported the previous June, Haverhill-based GTC Construction was originally hired to undertake the state-funded $1.5 million project. Hart said an insurance company is naming a new contractor, but there hasn’t been any progress in about a year.

The building has been draped in blue plastic tarps for more than a year and a half.

It was during the elevator project that officials noticed the front wall—reconstructed during the early 1980s—was “bowing.” “There were cracks inside the apartments. On the front wall there were cracks. It was clear something was going on there,” Hart said.

Of a dozen apartments near the front wall of the four-story building, 10 units were occupied. Hart said tenants were transferred to other developments around Haverhill.

The Housing Authority bought the then-mostly commercial Washington Block in 1980 and an Essex Street building that was once home to Louis B. Mayer’s first theater. Mayer’s theater—a burlesque house at the time the future movie mogul bought it—was demolished to expand the $3.2 million housing project. The former Clam Shell restaurant, straddling the Little River conduit in the square, was also demolished.

Because the Washington Block is part of the nationally designated Washington Street Shoe District, its façade was rebuilt to match its original look. The project was under the direction of architect Robert Brandon and contractor Stella Construction.

Tenants began to move into the new apartments during January, 1982, and first-floor commercial tenants the following year.