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SEE ALL SIGNED BOOKS by J. Dennis Robinson click here
Discovering the History of Discover Portsmouth


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 and the author of the newly released book America’s Privateer: Lynx and the War of 1812, available in select local stores and on

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