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Things You Never Knew About Old Portsmouth Library


Portsmouth Academy 200 Year History

The Tale of Two Buildings

 -- The concept of free public lending libraries is relatively modern. Private libraries began in Portsmouth as early as 1750. The original all-male membership library had 33 subscribers and was open only two hours each week. The Portsmouth Athenaeum, a membership library established in 1817, is still in operation in Market Square. Dozens of private subscription libraries, including the Mercantile Library (Est. 1853) opened and closed in the region during the 19th century.

Morton-Benedict House was first joined to the Portmouth Academy building as the Portsmouth Public Library in 1954/ SeacoastNH.com image courtesy Richard Candee

 -- There were public schools in Portsmouth as early as 1735, but wealthy families, then as now, often opted for private education. Portsmouth Academy was established in 1809 as an elite tuition school with two rooms downstairs and two upstairs. It opened in 1810 with 25 children and quickly doubled its enrollment. Water was supplied by the Portsmouth Aqueduct Company through an elaborate system of hollowed out logs. The famous Daniel Webster was among the founders and, legend says, authors Thomas Bailey Aldrich and James T. Fields attended the Academy.

 -- It was long rumored that the Portsmouth Academy was designed by Charles Bulfinch of Boston, best known as the architect of the Massachusetts Statehouse and the Capitol in Washington, DC. In fact, a local man from Newington named James Nutter, a house carpenter or "joiner" and later a Methodist minister, was paid $20 to design the building in 1809. He based his plan on a building at Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter that no longer stands..

 -- The year the Portsmouth Academy opened in 1810, Thomas Morton built a fashionable brick residence next door with a well and a stable. Morton ran a store downtown selling groceries and goods from the West India Trade that was at its peak in 1810. Only two years later, as America entered the War of 1812 and the economy began to falter, Morton advertised the house for sale in the NH Gazette. The house had twelve more owners and a number of additions before it was purchased by the city and officially became part of the Portsmouth Public Library in 1951. The interior, amazingly, remains much as it did in 1810.

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