Discovering the History of Discover Portsmouth
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Written by J. Dennis Robinson
DPC_history_00HISTORY 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.

Discover Portsmouth Center WEB SITE

A Tale of Two Buildings

Morton Benedict House-- 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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A library for the public

– In 1871, inspired by a sermon at the South Church, the Young People’s Union was created to provide a library and youth center for local teens.  Three rooms were set aside at the corner of Vaughan and Congress streets. Technically, this was the birth of the Portsmouth Public Library. When the group folded a few years later the books were stored, temporarily, in the basement of the Unitarian Chapel. That building is now gone.

-- In 1881 the books from the Young People’s Union were made available to the public in one room on the top floor of the old Custom House on Daniel Street. The city took responsibility for the collection and hired a librarian to catalog the books. The collection was moved twice more before finding a permanent home in the old Academy building. Hon. Frank Jones’ $500 bequest grew, with contributions, to over $10,000. A number of private book collections were donated to the growing library shelves.

-- While the public library was evolving elsewhere, a group of Civil War veterans and friends leased the old Academy building. The Storer Post of the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) planned to create a Memorial Hall there. Almost immediately, the city began to negotiate with the Storer Post about taking over their lease and sharing the building as both a library and an exhibit hall. When the city was slow to renovate the building, the GAR sued the city and won $5,000 to break its lease.

-- After paying off the Storer Post, the city took over the lease on the Academy building. They gutted it, and rebuilt the interior for about $5,500. A glass skylight was added to illuminate the interior. The Portsmouth Public Library occupied the building in 1896. The city purchased it officially in 1906 and stayed on this site for 100 years until the new library building opened on Parrott Ave. in 2006.  There have been only six city librarians in that entire time.

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Add Morton, subtract Bulfinch

-- Meanwhile, one doctor after another occupied an office that had been added to the old Morton house next door. By the early 20th century, after many owners and many tenants, the house was purchased by the Benedict family. One of their renters turned the doctor’s office into “Mirriam’s Tea Room” in the 1920s. The house included a dentist’s office in the 1930s.

-- In 1949 the Morton-Benedict House was sold at auction and by 1950 the ivy-covered brick residence was unoccupied. By this time the library next door was severely overcrowded and looking to expand.

-- In 1951 the city purchased the Morton-Benedict House as the library “annex” and a few years later linked it to the Academy building with a one-story brick addition. The architect also created an opaque glass floor in the center of the Academy building that allowed light from the skylight to filter down to the first floor of the library.

-- A sign on the library stated that the old building was designed by the famous architect Charles Bulfinch. But in 1966 a local historian discovered evidence that proved this claim was untrue and that the building was designed by James Nutter of Newington. The story was front-page news. Librarian Dorothy Vaughan continued to insist that Bulfinch might have visited Portsmouth or inspired the design. The documents proving that Nutter designed the building were presented to the city librarian, but later disappeared from the library collection. Luckily, the evidence had been photographed by architectural historian James Garvin, who became curator of Strawbery Banke Museum. When the gold-leafed Bulfinch sign finally came down in the 1980s under city librarian Sherman Pridham, journalist Ray Brighton praised the act as the killing of a “sacred cow” and the end of “one of Portsmouth’s most carefully nurtured delusions.” The missing Nutter documents were discovered in 2007 among the items donated to the NH Historical Society by the late Dorothy Vaughan who died in 2004 just shy of her 100th birthday.

-- In 1973 plans to expand the library required tearing down the two historic buildings and replacing them with a new modern library. Instead in 1976 a $660,000 renovation doubled the size of the connecting building, added 10,000 square feet, created offices and a children’s room, restored a circular staircase, and opened up the second floor balcony. The short-lived glass floor in the Academy building was removed and the 19th century skylight closed off. The redesign was largely supported by federal funds that required the city to abide by preservation guidelines during any future changes to the two historic buildings.

-- Soon the library was overcrowded again. Local readers will recall the long, sometimes contentious search for a new library site in Portsmouth. Plans to repurpose the 1895 Cottage Hospital near the renovated City Hall fell flat in the mid-1990s. Then, despite a small vocal group of protestors, the city built an expansive new high-tech Portsmouth Public Library near the South Mill Pond.  The historic move to the new location after 100-years opened a world of possibilities for the old buildings.

- At first the City planned to sell the buildings to private developers. The Portsmouth Historical Society was given just three years to put its plan for a cultural visitor center into practice. The Discover Portsmouth Center was born and began an aggressive plan of renovation, opened the space to nonprofit groups, created a free tourist information center, and sponsored a series of successful art and history exhibits. In 2011 the City extended the Portsmouth Historical Society’s lease on the buildings an additional 25 years. The first phase of a proposed $3 million renovation is now underway. Discover Portsmouth will open for its fourth season in May 2012.

Copyright © 2012 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson is the owner and editor of SeacoastNH.com and the author of the newly released book America’s Privateer: Lynx and the War of 1812, available in select local stores and on Amazon.com.