History repeats itself, and around here that's no accident. On the brink of the millennium, the preservation-minded Seacoast region appears increasingly unwilling to let bygones be bygones. When it comes to architecture, at least, it's chic to be old, and, many agree, the nostalgia trend is the shape of things to come.
The desire to salvage the historic flavor of the Seacoast is a relatively new concept started in the late 1800s during what historians call the Colonial Revival period. Many of the famous houses now open to the public were "saved" and restored to their original splendor starting at the turn of the century. That impetus culminated in the creation of Strawbery Banke, with over 30 preserved houses, in the late 1960s. Olde York Village in nearby Maine is another splendid example.
The latest wave of rebuilding started, for Portsmouth at least, with the renaissance of Market Square in the mid-1970s. New trees, brick sidewalks, annual festivals and a designated historic district worked wonders. Tourists and locals flocked to what had been a fading seaport. Though limited parking remains a problem, and some complain of too much pedestrian and vehicular traffic, the rebirth of the old "Parade" area continues. Banks have been recycled into shops, shops into restaurants. Today, even new buildings like the recently completed brick structure behind the North Church at Ten Pleasant Street, have a "look" that harkens to the 1800s.
Dover, too, has worked to revive its river port image. The Garrison City has rediscovered the Cocheco River, once the focus of city's survival. The new Henry Law Park area has a Victorian motif and a new "old-fashioned" covered bridge nearby where the meandering oxbow river meets the city center.
"It was an eyesore," says Matt Cox, chairman of the chamber of commerce River Walk Committee. "But now I think everyone who uses it will say this area has become a focal point of the town."
Travelling Backward in Time
They may not be "real" trolleys tied to tracks that once criss-crossed the city, but they're the next best thing. Three separate trolley lines now circumnavigate Portsmouth, offering travelers a nostalgic, albeit sometimes confusing alternative to cars and busses.
Seacoast Trolley, owned by entrepreneur Paul Reardon runs an hourly narrated summer loop from Market Square to Wallis Sands in Rye via scenic New Castle. Hampton Trolley, also a summer service, links Hampton Beach, Portsmouth and the Kittery Outlet Malls.
Now the city of Portsmouth, in association with the Pease Development Authority and Coast transportation is getting into the trolley biz. According to city transportation consultant John Burke, last summer's 13-week trolley test netted 6,500 riders, enough to press on with a three-year plan using matching federal funds to establish what Burke calls "true" transportation.
"Now we're actually going somewhere," Burke says. This summer the city will have four alternative-fuel trolleys of its own with expanded routes to Pease Tradeport and the malls in Newington. Burke says the plan is to expand the city-wide route down Islington Street in the year 2000, and down Middle Street to Route 1 in 2001 with returns on the hour or half hour.
The decision to use attractive trolleys rather than traditional buses, Burke says, is the city's emphasis on "fast and fun" travel. "That's what we've lost since the trolleys and trains went away -- fast and fun," he emphasizes.
Meanwhile Dover and Exeter are making tracks to revive passenger train service that once flourished here. Now sleepy rail lines may soon see Amtrak trains travelling up to 80 mph streaking from Boston to Portland. Portsmouth, which trashed its Victorian railway station during urban renewal, hopes to be working on the railroad too. Studies are underway at the Rockingham Planning Commission to possibly re-establish the Portsmouth passenger train link to Newburyport.
Starting from Scratch
Unlike such "replica" destinations as Sturbridge Village, Plymouth Plantation and Colonial Williamsburgh, Portsmouth has come to regard itself as a truly original historic city. That may change if two bold new projects find funding and support.
In January Mayor Evelyn Sirrell's Save Our Statehouse Committee meets for the fourth time. The blue ribbon panel hopes to spearhead the creation of a nonprofit group that will recreate the provincial state house that once stood in the center of Market Square. So far committee members have roughed out a $2.6 million budget for replicating the 1760s building. Less than a third of the original building remains, disassembled and sitting in a trailer in Concord.
The goal is to replicate both the structure and the spirit of political debate that the building symbolizes. Organizers see the old state house as a first stop for visitors who want to understand how this British provincial capital became an American state, a central point for interpreting the history of Portsmouth and of New Hampshire. The selection of potential building sites, out of 11 being studied, is the focus of the next meeting.
Meanwhile another Seacoast group has high hopes of replicating the tall ship Ranger that John Paul Jones sailed into history from Portsmouth Harbor in 1777. First proposed in this newspaper and on the web site SeacoastNH.com, the idea of a replica ship has gained steam since the visit of the Australian-built HM Endeavour attracted 60,000 sightseers to the Port Authority dock in Portsmouth last September. Australian tall ship owners earned an estimated $150,000 in their 10-day Portsmouth stopoever.
Tom Cocchiaro, a member of the Piscataqua Maritime Commission, that brought Endeavour, says that bringing the Ranger back to life will require "a whole new group separate from anyone else." Cocchiaro has contacted naval architect and shipbuilder Melbourne Smith who worked on the Endeavour project. Smith estimates the total cost of a project this size at $12 million, including research, construction, docking, labor.
Offers of money and volunteer service have already been received. Cocchiaro hopes more tall ship visits will keep the Ranger momentum going. Plans for more visits this summer and during the Tall Ship 2000 tour are evolving now, he says.
Still Standing for Something
But even the cost of standing still can be daunting. Few visitors, perhaps few residents ever wonder how all these old structures stay in top shape. The secret is volunteers, hundreds of them, providing thousands of hours to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep up dozens of historic houses. With the exception of Strawbery Banke, which supports a campus of 30 restored buildings, and SPNEA, which supports five in the region, most houses operate independently on shoe-string budgets.
The Warner, Lear, Moffatt-Ladd, John Paul Jones houses in Portsmouth, for example, the Woodman Institute in Dover, the Tuck Museum in Hampton, the American Independence Museum in Exeter and others -- all function and raise funds separately.
So this year when the Portsmouth Historical Society expended $38,000 to rebuild its rotting wooden fence with an identical hand-hewn cedar reproduction, the Society and its few sponsors paid their own way. The cost was more than double the annual income generated by visitors to the John Paul Jones House where the fence was rebuilt.
When preservation works best, it may go totally unnoticed. Not so for the high-profile North Church steeple in Market Square. In 1998 the well-lit and most recognizeable icon in the region showed signs of age and turned from white to a corroded yellow cast. This year, architects who have assessed the damage will report just how costly the upcoming facelift will be.
Win Some, Lose Some
Still there are casualties, from Dover's Sawyer Mansion to Portsmouth's North End, preservationists lose as often as they win. Currently all eyes in 1999 are focused on Wentworth-by-the-Sea in New Castle, First built in 1875, the fate of the last sliver of the once grand hotel hangs by a thread.
After years of continual effort to save the decaying hotel, preservationists were sure the structure had finally been removed from the endangered edifice list. Now it is back on the list and ticking like a time bomb as legal wrangling between the current owner and potential buyer continue.
Saving the good old days, it appears, is a battle that never ends.
Article and photo of construction at Ten Pleasant Street, Portsmouth by J. Dennis Robinson
© 1998 SeacoastNH.com
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