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Among the Ghosts of Gardner Street

Portsmouth, NH South End (continued)

Wentworth Gardner house at the based o Gardner Street in Portsmouth, NH South End on early 20th century postcard /

These are the cards the owners were dealt. No rooms can be added, none taken away. The Benedicts brought into this small space their collection of furniture and art. These are the pieces they presented to painter/designer Will Perkins and to carpenter/cabinet maker Bob Lacivita. The owners’ goals were simple -- help us create a beautiful space where we will be happy for the rest of our lives.

Before the Benedicts came the Dustons. Seth and Heidi Duston are the avowed "saviors" of the house. They bought the old Federal in the 1990s when it was a wreck.

"I really loved that house, but we had no idea what we were getting into," Seth Duston says. "It was our first really heavy-duty restoration. We did most of the work. I like to think we gave it another 100 years. I don’t know how, but I felt like the house was thanking us for doing the work."

The Dustons work included shoring up the sagging floor beams. They replaced three-quarters of the rotting sills and had all the wood-frame windows reproduced and installed. They framed in the room that became the modern kitchen, repaired the roof, skim-coated all the walls and replaced the front door with a period fabrication. Seth recalls tearing up the attic floorboards and feeding them out the window to be re-used in the kitchen and taking a sledge hammer to the brickwork to expose that colonial beehive fireplace. He hired a local folksinger, who was also a mason, to completely rebuild a sagging chimney. They did much of the work in 45 days.

Then they had their third child, and the house was suddenly too small. Exit the Dustons, who now live in a 1705 colonial in Maine. Enter the Benedicts.

Three decades ago, before the South End renaissance, this fading little Federal would not have attracted such loving attention. Portsmouth was just beginning to transform itself from a hard-knuckle seaport with topless bars to a cultural heritage and high-tech center. But the bargain days are over. Touted as one of America’s most livable small cities (population 24,000) Portsmouth, to the chagrin of many locals, is a chic new destination, and real estate rates reflect that trend.

The only seaport on New Hampshire’s 17-mile coast, Portsmouth started strong and faded quickly. During its heyday as a British colony, Mark Hunking Wentworth, owned the stunning Georgian mansion (1760) at the foot of Gardner Street, now the Wentworth-Gardner museum. Mark Wentworth was the brother of one royal NH governor, uncle to a second and father to a third.

The Benedict home was built when the South End was marked by long wharves fragrant with West Indian spices. Although the details are murky, it is clear that the Laightons, a venerable Portsmouth family, owned most of the land from the top of Gardner Street, which was then called Ann Street, down to the river.

Family patriarch Paul Laighton was a block maker. He and his sons crafted the round wooden pulleys used in rigging tall ships.

Paul owed his fortune to Mary Mills whom he married in 1756. Her father Luke Mills originally owned the wharf and the towering 1747 colonial that still stands at the river’s edge. That building may have been a tavern. By the 1770s, as the Revolution neared, a series of key family estates were lined along the river like pieces on a Monopoly board – the Laightons, the Wentworths, the Pickerings, and so on. Each rectangular lot had acres of backyard garden or orchard stretching up toward Water Street (now Marcy), one of the defining streets in the sprawling South End. That open land just up from the bustling riverfront became the hot new property as New Hampshire evolved from a provincial colony to an independent state. Because a Tory owned the Wentworth estate next door, Paul Laighton was careful to register himself as a loyal Portsmouth patriot during the Revolution.


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Wednesday, January 17, 2018 
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