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Among the Ghosts of Gardner Street

Wentwoth Gardner Roof/ SeacoastNH.comHISTORIC HOMES

It was almost demolished as a slum in 1972. But Portsmouth’s South End survived the onslaught of urban renewal and today is among the most sought after and ritzy places to live in Portsmouth. That’s because it’s history is as old as Portsmouth itself and its new residents live among a host of ghostly neighbors.

 

 

Portsmouth's Ancient South End

"You don’t buy a house around here," a longtime South-Ender says. "You buy a neighborhood."

Major William Gardner (c) Portsmouth Athenaeum, Portsmouth, NH courtesy Back Channel Press on SeacoastNH.comOne stroll through the Portsmouth, New Hampshire waterfront validates his claim. Down Hunking Street toward the Piscataqua River, two-story clapboard homes lean toward each other like ancient trees. A couple holding hands with their arms outstretched can almost touch the buildings on both sides. Colonial, Georgian, Federal and modern homes are jig-sawed together, some touching, others only slightly less familiar.

Pressed against the fast-flowing Piscataqua River, Portsmouth’s historic South End is among the nation’s longest surviving neighborhoods, dating to the 1650s. Just over from Hunking, at the head of Gardner Street, two neighbors have renovated their ideal home. Susan and Larry Benedict, both educators, have settled in for good. They are part of the South End renaissance of retiring couples drawn to this refurbished maritime setting. Five years ago they bought a 1778 Federal home the first day it came on the market.

"We both walked in and we knew this was it," Susan Benedict says. "We are never going to live anywhere else. We’ll die with our boots on here."

True to its Federal style, the unadorned exterior draws little attention. The shy 2 1/2-story structure is positioned sideways on a tiny lot, just 34 by 79 feet. Visitors approach from the back that offers only two small central windows and two towering chimneys at each end. There is room for two cars tucked end-to-end and a pocket garden with three raised wooden beds, a tool shed and nothing more. It isn’t everybody’s cup of tea.

The original tenants had just four simple rooms and a habitable third floor attic. The current house has a fifth room, the modern kitchen, built on the footprint of an old shed, plus bathrooms up and down. Another small shed has been adapted into a breakfast nook off the kitchen and both look out onto the garden that is wrapped in a high wooden fence. A simple boxy stairway, almost primitive by Portsmouth standards, rises like an elevator up the center of the building. All four original rooms have high ceilings and working fireplaces. Just to the right of the beehive fireplace is a narrow door where a precipitous "secret" staircase leads to the attic. There is a dark spooky basement where nobody goes.

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Saturday, November 18, 2017 
 
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