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Carpe Diem Cultural Center

A cultural Center for Portsmouth, NH?  / SeacoastNH.comWILL PORTSMOUTH SEIZE THE DAY?

It’s simple really. You take two old buildings and you recycle them into one 21st century hotspot. That way Portsmouth can boost local business, promote local arts, and save the old statehouse – in one visionary step. Will we take one giant leap to become a major heritage center? It’s really up to you, dear reader.





READ: History of NH Old Statehouse

Portsmouth Historical Society Proposes
Cultural Center for Old Library

UPDATE: Discover Portsmouth Open 

The best thing to happen in Portsmouth in decades won’t happen unless you take action. A proposal is on the table to turn the old public library into a "Cultural Center". Only one organization, the Portsmouth Historical Society, has filed a plan to save this historic building from commercial use. But this is much more than preservation. The proposal to renovate the building promises to pump millions of dollars into the local economy, promote and expand the arts, guide and inform locals and visitors, create the city’s only public gallery, tell Portsmouth stories and save the Old Statehouse to boot. But this visionary plan is not going to happen because you are reading this article. You have to speak up. You have to help.

Cultural Center design 2007 proposal from Portsmouth Historical Society /

As you know, Portsmouth has become one of the most exciting cultural centers in New England. There is never a day without arts, history, fine food or political intrigue and never a night without music, theater, lectures and dance. So much is going on, in fact, that the "Portsmouth scene" desperately needs one central place where it all comes together.

Fifty years ago a librarian in a pink suit and a flowered hat helped launch a revolution when she addressed the all-male Portsmouth Rotary. She told the businessmen gathered that Portsmouth was destroying itself. If they preserved the city’s historic identity, she said, tourists would flock here and spend millions of dollars. If they ignored her call, Portsmouth would soon look like every other town in America.

Librarian Dorothy Vaughan was wrong – at least, temporarily. The revolution did not happen overnight. Fifty years later, however, her prophetic words are proving true. If you preserve it, they will come.

Benedict House, now attached to the former Portsmouth Public Library building / Strawbery Bank Collection on SeacoastNH.comHere’s what happened. The restored houses of Portsmouth attracted young artists and entrepreneurs in the 1960s and 70s. They enlivened Prescott Park, redesigned Market Square, kick-started a series of festivals, revived local theatre, and turned a fading seaport into a dynamic city again. Another generation of entrepreneurs, drawn to this evolving cultural Mecca, established high-tech and service companies, and built new buildings, that, in turn, drew more talented people. In the intervening three decades, Portsmouth survived the loss of Pease Air Force Base and the downsizing of the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. A whole new economy was born. Despite the onslaught of malls and modernization, Portsmouth retained its gritty heritage, colonial buildings, twisting streets.

Today, with so much going on, visitors and Seacoast residents need one central place where friendly, welll-trained guides can tell us WHAT’S PLAYING in Portsmouth. We all need that place, open seven days a week, with the latest info on – not just a few – but all of the ongoing events. We need a place to get in out of the rain and snow, year round, because Portsmouth is now a 12-month town. We need a place to sit down, talk to the kids, use public restrooms, see fresh enticing art and history exhibits and plan our next move. We need to see a short dynamic video that reminds us what Portsmouth is all about and why this city is special. Think of "Where’s Boston", your favorite hotel concierge, Welcome Wagon, the most entertaining tour guide and the world’s best database – all rolled into one. The single goal of the proposed cultural center is to make everyone’s visit to Portsmouth – the best it can be. People who are happy, come back, spend more and come back again.

The stats are in. Recent studies in New Hampshire and Maine prove that people decide where to live and where to visit based on culture. They go where the monuments and historic sites are. They want to see live shows, street events, walking tours, architecture, concerts, museums, parks, discovery centers. Those are the facts.

Detail of NH Old Statehouse ifacade designed into Portsmouth Cultural Cenbter / Proposal by Portsmouth Historical Society 2007 on

The truth is that the historic 1760 statehouse is little more than a few rotting timbers housed in a trailer in Concord. In fifty years of trying, history lovers have been unable to rebuild it or even to find a suitable location. A committee tracking over 40 locations did not find a usable site. Strawbery Banke and Prescott Park have already said no. The Portsmouth Historical Society (PHS) plan is realistic. Rather than rebuild the whole building on a separate lot, PHS will recreate the wooden façade of the statehouse between the two historic brick buildings that make up the old library. This will replace the 1970s glassed-in section that now connects the two buildings. The second story of this section will include a reconstruction of the 1760s hall to be used for public meetings. A model of the statehouse and portions of the original timbers will be part of a permanent exhibit. This way we honor New Hampshire’s first statehouse just blocks from it’s original location – but we don’t need to take up space elsewhere in the city. Everyone wins.

Portsmouth dollars cannot keep Portsmouth flourishing. Tourist dollars drive this economy. Jim Haller found that out in the 1960s when he opened the Blue Strawbery restaurant on what was a largely deserted Ceres Street. His revolutionary hip eatery thrived, but statistics quickly showed that 95% of his customers came from out of town and out of state. Today scores of phenomenal restaurants and unique shops populate the region. Without a constant flow of appreciative outsiders, we cannot sustain our super high level of fine dining, shopping, galleries, theatres and events. IT is a symbiotic relationship and, as locals, we benefit from the number and quality of top-notch venues.

The Portsmouth Chamber of Commerce does a superb job promoting local business and attracting tourists. It helps families and companies relocate to the region, networks local businesses, lobbies for the local economy, holds political forums. It promotes its paid membership and publishes excellent maps, guides and booklets that tell visitors where to shop, stay and eat. The Cultural Center is something else entirely. It tells people who are already in town – visitors and locals -- what’s happening right now. The center answers questions about where to find all things historical, musical, theatrical, literary, artistic, educational – and fun.

Former Portsmouth Academy and Public LIbrary now prosed as Portsmouth Cultural Center / Strawbery Banke Photo on

PHS is a nonprofit organization that currently runs the John Paul Jones House museum across the street from the proposed Cultural Center. PHS leaders estimate the cost of the renovation at $3 million, about twice the cost of restoring the North Church steeple. The initial money would come largely from grants, available public funding and donations. If the money is not found in three years, according to the proposal, the library buildings go back to the city of Portsmouth. In the interim, the city is asked to continue to support the basic costs of maintaining the buildings and charge no rent, nothing more. Keeping the Cultural Center going, according to current estimates, requires an endowment in the bank totaling another $3 million. Again, if the money is not located, the city finds another use for the building. If funds are found, the city leases the site to the nonprofit group that continues to run the Cultural Center Yes, the city possibly loses some tax income, but profits enormously from increased tourist dollars that go into the local economy through local businesses.

A core group of two or three dozen prominent citizens have been thinking about this project and meeting ad hoc for two years. They include directors of most of the historic houses, children’s groups, arts and cultural organizations and more. They know how much work this will be, but they believe it is the last great step in re-inventing our economy. When the city of Portsmouth held a public forum last year, six separate discussion groups met and came to the same conclusion – we need a place for visitors and residents to learn about Portsmouth.

The Cultural Center is going to happen only if Portsmouth gets behind the idea. If enough people want this city to finally step-up and take its place as an important New England historical and cultural "destination point" then it has a solid chance. If we want more work for artists, more customers for business, more meals served, more rooms filled for hotels and more history preserved – than the time has come. But no one is going to push this project against the tide. If we are not ready to seize the day, then the day will pass.

Copyright © 2007 by J. Dennis Robinson and All rights reserved.


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