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The Day They Took the Old NH Statehouse


Not many provincial statehouses survive. This picture from Salem, Massachusetts shows how early New England court houses were placed right at the center of things. (Used courtesy of the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem on

Brewster was writing a eulogy rather than a description. He visited he said, out of pity for the "frail tenement". Like a doctor visiting a dying patient, he came only with kind words, "not with the hope of resuscitating it from its sinking disease".

Yet nearly two centuries later, some historians cling to a hope that the bones will rise again. In 1967, in an appeal to preserve the statehouse, attorney David Engel told New Hampshire officials that "this may be the last opportunity we get to save this building which is in deteriorating condition". Forty years later Engel and members of Portsmouth’s Save the Statehouse committee are still trying.

For some, the statehouse symbolizes the critical era in history when New Hampshire transformed itself from a colonial colony to a sovereign state. Built under two royal British governors, the statehouse was the starting point for an early protest march against the Stamp Act. At the height of the Revolution, after Gov. John Wentworth had been driven from his home town forever, locals gathered to hear the Declaration of Independence read from the second floor balcony. Later George Washington reportedly waved to Portsmouth citizens from the same spot. By then, the state capital had already moved to nearby Exeter, and in 1819 to Concord.

No images of the building survive. An artist’s sketch first appeared in a 1902 tourist guide to Portsmouth. That drawing was created "according to the testimony of many old people, who can remember it distinctly." But those old people had certainly seen the building in its declining years, after its adaptation to a Greek-revival style, with no stately cupola and with most of its ornamentation removed. It was not until 1987, when the state of New Hampshire issued a detailed report that a new conceptual sketch showed the likely building at the height of its grandeur. What’s left of that grandeur hunkers today inside a cold steel trailer, slowly returning to dust.

Charles Brewster never imagined a reconstructed Old Statehouse. Such an idea was unthinkable before the rise of tourism. He was simply saying goodbye to an old friend. Then suddenly, his visit was cut short by the return of the wrecking crew ready to finish their job. In a burst of patriotic emotion, the reporter concluded his 1836 obituary:

"We were going on administering other words of consolation to the old State House, but at this moment the clock struck one and as the undertaker we found standing with tools in hand waiting for us to depart, the bell took our last words from our lips, and rang its changes until we were out of hearing - "Innovation-In-no-va-tion! Sic transit gloria mundi!"

SOURCE NOTE: Charles Brewster quotations are from Portsmouth & Great Falls Journal of Literature & Politics Saturday, November 5, 1836. This article was rediscovered by historian Richard Winslow, who first found a reference to it in an 1878 letter to Brewster's son and heir Lewis Brewster.

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

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