Experts Say Exhibit Not Reconstruction is Best Use of First NH State House
Written by J. Dennis Robinson
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The 1758 colonial State House that once stood in the middle of Portsmouth’s Market Square should not be reconstructed from its surviving bits and pieces now stored in a trailer in Concord. At least, that is not the “best use” of the artifacts according to a seven-year $250,000 study by the NH Division of Historic Resources. (Continued below)
The final report will be released later this month, but the DHR leaked a two- paragraph summary of its forthcoming recommendations last week in “The Old Stone Wall,” the agency’s electronic newsletter. The long-awaited report will recommend “a phased, multi-component approach that uses the First State House to supplement and support historic sites and stories around the state.” In other words, the preserved wooden pieces have an important story to tell, but not as part of a reconstructed building.
“We don’t know exactly what the first New Hampshire State House looked like,” says DHR Director and State Preservation Officer Elizabeth Muzzey. “We’d need extensive modern materials to construct it and it would be conjectural. That’s not good museum practice now. It might have been at one time, but things in the field have changed.”
Only fragments of one-third of the original building are left and no money is currently available to rebuild it. No one knows what happened to the other two-thirds of the building or exactly what it looked like. The surviving third was discovered on Court Street in the 1870s and the idea to “rebuild” it was first suggested in 1935. The surviving piece, then a liquor warehouse, was moved to Strawbery Banke Museum in 1967. The NH legislature considered a bill allocating $1,175,000 to reconstruct the building as a museum in Portsmouth. But the bill was defeated in 1988. The structure was meticulously disassembled in 1990 and stored in a 40-foot trailer in Concord. The fragments are now located in a newer used trailer purchased with a portion of the grant money.
Despite decades of intense discussion about rebuilding the State House (estimated $2.5 million) in Portsmouth, locals were unable to come up with any funds, define a specific use for the structure, or find a viable location for the building from among two dozen proposed sites. In 2004 Senator Judd Gregg announced that the state would receive a $250,000 grant from the US Dept. of Housing and Urban Development to study the Old State House, cleverly rebranded as the “First State House.” The money came from an Economic Development Initiative program. Although some locals thought the money might be used to kick-start the reconstruction, it was allocated only for planning and study, and was received by DHR beginning in 2007. The funds ran out this summer.
“We were really fortunate to get the grant so we could begin to figure this puzzle out,” Muzzey says. “It’s a puzzle with a lot of missing pieces. Anything we do beyond this study will need to come through grants from the legislature or other funders. It’s going to take a lot of fundraising.”
After years of public hearings, research, forensic analysis, and meetings with experts and consultants, the DHR will now recommend a three-phase plan for the best use of what they call “the resource.” The resource consists of 493 mostly deteriorated wooden pieces salvaged from one-third of the State House when it was removed from Market Square in 1836. Many pieces were added after 1758 when it was used as a boarding house and warehouse, and many original pieces were removed. Even the small extant portion of the First State House has no first floor, no plaster, no windowsills, no chimney, no wall paneling, and no stairs or doors.
FINAL STATE HOUSE RECOMMENDATIONS continued
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