The transformation of Bristol’s Gladding House and Store

By Kristen Ray
Posted 9/30/19

A nice, big hug.

That is what principal Ben Bergenholtz said the old, historic Gladding House and Store were in need of back in 2017, when Harborside Holdings Corp. signed a long-term lease for …

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The transformation of Bristol’s Gladding House and Store


A nice, big hug.

That is what principal Ben Bergenholtz said the old, historic Gladding House and Store were in need of back in 2017, when Harborside Holdings Corp. signed a long-term lease for the properties with the Town of Bristol.

They were certainly in need of something. Situated along the water toward the lower end of Thames Street, they stood blighted and abandoned, one even leaning off to its side.

Now, more than two years later, the real estate investment and development company has completely renovated, restored and repurposed the historic buildings, helping to preserve a piece of Bristol’s waterfront heritage.

The Gladding House and Store, then

By the time the Gladding House and Store had made it into Harborside’s hands, the structures were a far cry from their former 19th-century heyday. Built back in the 1850s by John Gladding III, they were situated at the epicenter of Bristol’s burgeoning waterfront district, right in the compact part of town.

At the time, Mr. Gladding lived in the smaller of the two at 211 Thames St., while next door, at 205, he sold imported items in his shop, like parlor stoves and Japan and tin ware. Back in the late 1800s, the neighborhood operated under much closer quarters; sandwiched between his store and the fire station was a one-time paint shop — situated so close, Mr. Bergenholtz said, that occupants could have opened their windows and shook hands — while to the right of his house, another building also once stood. Come the early 20th century, they were joined by a number of smaller, shanty-like structures that lined the wharf, then a hot spot for oyster harvesting.

“This would have been a very active part of town,” Mr. Bergenholtz said.

Though Thames Street was characterized back then by these small, densely-populated one- to two-story shops, the streetscape has changed considerably since then. Gone are the little shanties, along with the structures that flanked either side of the Gladding properties; the hurricane of 1938 blew off a 50-foot length of the store itself, never to be replaced. Over the years, both buildings were altered and repurposed, operating at different times as a grocery store and apartments. By 2017, however, they simply stood vacant, too run-down to be deemed inhabitable.

Still, there was a chance that the town — which purchased the properties several years earlier — could preserve that little slice of small-scale, waterfront history, entrusting Harborside to rehabilitate them. 

“We thought they were charming survivors, really,” Mr. Bergenholtz said. “And that it was important for Bristol to showcase what the waterfront used to look like and still does, thankfully.”

The Gladding House and Store, now

Charming as they may have seemed, the Gladding House and Store proved to be anything but a simple renovation and restoration project for Mr. Bergenholtz and his team. Though by now, they have successfully transformed Mr. Gladding’s home into a single-family, three-bedroom dwelling and are nearing the end of construction for Wilson Wang’s award-winning restaurant, Baba Sushi, at the property next door. It was a grueling two-year job for the company.

To start, it took Harborside several months to stabilize each of the buildings, both of which were sinking, the result of rotted away structural elements and sills.

“Everything on the first floor had basically failed, structurally,” Mr. Bergenholtz said.

Asbestos riddled the interiors of both, especially the former Gladding home, requiring special treatment to cure. Although the first floor in each was significantly damaged, Harborside still managed to salvage a number of original materials, most of which were found in the upper levels: flooring and trim, posts and beams, windows and exposed roofing, the latter of which featured wide-panel wooden boards.

As they got deeper into the project, workers continued to unearth more clues into the Gladding House and Store’s initial design: hidden beneath shaker siding was original clapboard, along with traces of the original paint colors. They replicated the shop’s original storefront and had tin roofing custom made. Tucked away in the eaves of the former store were 19th-century oars; down below was a cistern, looking almost new.

While the goal was to pay homage to the Gladding House and Store’s past, it was equally important for Harborside to prepare for their future. With sea level rise and flooding posing real threats to Bristol’s waterfront, they opted to place the kitchens and HVAC systems in both structures on the upper floors. Otherwise, they let the buildings themselves dictate the ultimate floor plans, working with what they already had to offer.

“It never works when you try to force an antique building to do what you want it to do,” Mr. Bergenholtz said.

Though construction took several months longer than initially anticipated — originally, both structures were expected for completion by the beginning of the summer — Mr. Bergenholtz has been grateful for the town’s continual support of Harborside’s efforts.

“Hopefully, they’re here for another 150 years.”

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