Discovering the History of Discover Portsmouth
Written by J. Dennis Robinson
Page 1 of 3HISTORY MATTERS
The Portsmouth Public Library moved to its expansive new facility on Parrott Ave six years ago. Yet now and then a very delinquent borrower stops by the old brick library building at the corner of Middle and Islington streets with some very-overdue books. He peers through the windows of what is now the Discover Portsmouth Center. What he sees is a building turned inside out. Wires dangle from an exposed ceiling and the floor is littered with lighting fixtures, heating ducts, and coiled cables. (Continued below)
The $1 million renovation is the first step in a lengthy metamorphosis. In the waning days of 2007 city councilors voted 8-to-1 to green light a bold new project. Portsmouth Historical Society trustees (at the John Paul Jones House) wanted to transform the old city library into a visitor center. The idea was to create a beautiful downtown place where anyone can learn about the incredible historic and cultural resources that Portsmouth has to offer. The more the city economy is tied to heritage tourism, society trustees suggested, the more we need a free and welcoming center.
Portsmouth loves to recycle its architecture. What we call the “old library” is really two separate Federal Style buildings – a private home and a school – both built around 1810. The former Portsmouth Academy and the Morton-Benedict House were linked by a brick connector in 1954. Both have a fascinating history. Here are the facts – point by point.
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A Tale of Two Buildings
-- The free public library is a relatively new idea. 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.
-- 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 New Hampshire 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 and is now home to the Star Island Corporation.
-- The City of Portsmouth first leased the Academy building in 1868 and used it as the Jones Grammar School. Frank Jones, the “ale tycoon” was then mayor. Jones, a millionaire, also donated his $500 mayoral salary as seed money to create a public library for the city. Jones challenged others to contribute to a fund of $5,000 to open the library.
-- A few years later the Jones School was condemned as unsafe and unsanitary. Curiously, Dr. Henry E. Clark, who forced the closure of the school, lived right next door in the brick house built by Thomas Morton in 1810.
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