Experts Say Exhibit Not Reconstruction is Best Use of First NH State House
  • Print
Written by J. Dennis Robinson

NH State House imagined drawing HISTORY MATTERS

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.

One-third of NH State House at Strawbery Banke in late 1960s“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.


Fragments of First NH State House in computer graphic reconstruction by TMS Architects


No Plans to Rebuild First NH State House (Continued)

“Those additions and subtractions that happened later are interesting,” Muzzey says, “but they don’t relate to the history of the State House and they’re not authentic to that time period. So we never had a building-in-a-box as many people may have thought. It could not be reconstructed as a standing structure that would represent even one-third of the First State House. There had been too many changes to it.”

Since no authentic replica is possible, the team of experts hired by DHR was asked to recommend ways to best use the resource. They studied the physical condition of the artifacts, examined the architecture, created computer graphic simulations, research the heritage tourist market, and looked at budget projections. The DHR shared each phase of the process with the public in a series of hearings and online reports.

Sketch showing one-third of surviving First State House after it was demolished in 1836 in Portsmouth, NHMore than 20 locals attended a lively November 2011 public hearing at Strawbery Banke Museum. Many still expressed interest in seeing the State House rebuilt even after learning that the few surviving timbers could not support a modern building and that, if used, they would not be visible within the new structure. Others suggested creating a building in Concord, creating an interpretive or virtual exhibit, turning the wood into furniture, or holding a bonfire to burn the artifacts. A few in attendance, who had served for years on the city’s Blue Ribbon State House Committee, now defunct, continued to ask whether the balance of the federal planning grant money could be utilized for construction purposes.

By the final hearing at the Discover Portsmouth Center in March 2012, only five members of the public (and no members of the media) attended an elaborate two-hour presentation by a series of DHR experts. Not one of the locals attending was in favor of reconstructing the building. Only four New Hampshire residents responded to an online questionnaire and none favored either a full or partial restoration.


Fragments of First Nh State House in Concord, NH (NHDHR photo)

If You Build It, They Won't Come (Continued)

So what will the DHR recommend in its upcoming multi-phase report?

“The first phase is hopefully to find a large interior exhibition space that we could use part of the State House to create a sculpture, in effect, of the timber framing,” Muzzey says. “One idea that has been thrown out was the Manchester Airport.”

This step would allow the public to visualize the wooden skeleton of the large building in whole or in part, but without actually creating another building.  The fragments might then be preserved in public view with an accompanying explanation as part of the sculpture.

The second phase of the DHR plan involves a pair of small interpretative exhibits, one at the Wentworth-Coolidge Mansion in Portsmouth and another at the NH State House in Concord.  These displays may or may not include bits of the First State House, Muzzey says, but would use the story of the building as a jumping off point for discussions of history, citizenship, democracy, and what it is like to live in New Hampshire. These exhibits would urge people to visit other related historic sites nearby.

The third element definitely includes a Web site, Muzzey says, and must focus on getting the story to a state-wide audience. The first “purpose-built” state house was in Portsmouth, she says, but it also tells a broader story about New Hampshire. In a state that is often seen only in terms of regions and competing tourist destinations, Muzzey says the DHR goal is to show how the seacoast, mountains, lakes, rural, and urban areas relate to one another.

‘I think that the story of New Hampshire becomes that much stronger when all of those stories join together,” she says.

So was the conclusion really worth nearly a century of debate and a $250,000 federal grant? Muzzey says the funds were effectively used.

“We’ve come up with a new vision of the First State House,” she says. “It’s one that we feel is feasible. We think that folks will support it and finally be able to understand what the resource is all about, and how the early story relates to the rest of the state. We hope to find a new way to get people excited about New Hampshire history and about visiting the entire state.”

But like the baby monster at the end of every horror film, the renovation idea will never truly go away. No accurate replica is possible, Muzzey says, and then she hedges: “If somebody digs up a painting of the building in an attic that dates from 1790 or somebody uncovers the full set of plans from when it was built …” She laughs and leaves her sentence unfinished.

But there is nothing in the DHR recommendation, she admits, that would prevent anyone with a plan, a site, and a lot of money from reconstructing the imagined building.

“From what we know today, it’s certainly not the best use of those materials,” she explains. “But you could always build a building that you felt resembled what the First State House might have been. You can always do that with or without the pieces we have in the trailer.”

So it’s still possible?

“Absolutely,” Muzzey says. “It’s a free country,”

READ ALSO: State of State House Revealed with more pictures

FOR MORE INFORMATION on the First State House Project visit the NH Division of Historic Resources Web site where the final report will appear later this month. (

Copyright © 2012 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson’s history column appears in the Portsmouth Herald every other Monday and exclusively online at his independent Web site His latest book is Under the Isles of Shoals: Archaeology and Discovery at Smuttynose