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NH Coast Considered for National Park

HOWELLS-DECATUR 1936 PLAN (continued)

Even though he continued to promote the project for years, John Mead Howells quickly suspected that the Interior Department did not have pockets deep enough to rehabilitate an entire city sector. Appealing to the financially strapped New Hampshire seaport was simply wasted energy. "In Portsmouth there is nothing," he wrote to a friend in 1935, "the last of the aristocracy is falling – it is a town of tradespeople and politicians without interest in old houses."

But the rollercoaster ride had just begun. The National Parks agency was intrigued and by 1936 Portsmouth was among the top three sites in the nation slated for investigation along with Annapolis, Maryland and Nachez Mississippi.

"It seemed for just a fleeting moment," according to architectural historian Charles B. Hosmer, Jr., "that the plan would work – that the National Park Service could get the money and the personnel to go into Portsmouth with a restoration program."

But the ambitious Decatur-Howells proposal was ahead of its time. Even though the $2.5 million estimate was one-tenth of the cost of Williamsburg, the Roosevelt Administration passed on Portsmouth.

Howells must have been especially frustrated when he learned that on April 10, 1940, while making a pre-war tour of the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, President Franklin Roosevelt passed right by the proposed maritime village site. In his third and final visit to Portsmouth, Roosevelt road in an open car up Daniel Street and across the Memorial Bridge just 100 yards from Puddle Dock. The Decatur-Howells plan lost momentum during World War II and, despite attempts at revive it, faded in history. Only a few Portsmouth residents ever knew it existed.

Howells did have a Plan B. He attempted to contact John D. Rockefeller, who paid for much of the Williamsburg renovations, but without success. He reached out to automaker Henry Ford who donated millions to his own historic village reconstruction in Michigan. But Ford too was uninterested in the sleepy Portsmouth waterfront.

"I suppose we can hardly blame him," Howells responded on learning of Ford’s polite refusal. "We will have to carry on some other way."

That way did not come for two decades when in 1954 the federal government again focused its attention on the Puddle Dock area. This time, however, the plan was to bulldoze every building in the neighborhood to make way for a housing complex of "garden apartments". In 1958, following a public surge of interest in historic preservation, Strawbery Banke Inc. was created, although the museum did not open to the public for another seven years. Twenty-seven historic buildings were saved from the bulldozers of urban renewal, but scores of Puddle Dockers were displaced.

John Mead Howells died soon after the Strawbery Banke project was begun. Stephen Decatur lived just long enough to see the project come alive, but it was not the Maritime Village they had envisioned – funded by millions of National Park dollars and bustling with costumed ship builders on restored wooden wharves and cobblestone streets. The days of Portsmouth’s great China Trade had ended long before, and would never come again.

Copyright © 2006 by J. Dennis Robinson, All rights reserved.

This article is adapted from Dennis Robinson’s upcoming book that chronicles the 400-year history of the Puddle Dock area. The book is scheduled for publication in fall 2007. Robinson is editor and owner of, a popular local web site covering Seacoast history, travel and culture.

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