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How the Coolidge Family of Boston Saved Wentworth Mansion
Louise Coolidge at Wentworth MansionHISTORY MATTERS

Great historic moments come and go quickly. But historic houses live on. This is the story of a genteel Boston family that moved into the rambling mansion of New Hampshire’s royal governor. Their lives – and their talented and influential friends – fostered the city’s arts community that thrives today.

 

Without rich people from out of town there would be no historic Portsmouth. In almost every case, the restored, colonial house museums that give this city its character and "open door" cache were gifted to us by wealthy summer visitors in the 20th century. Some, like the Langdons and the Wendells, had Portsmouth roots. Others like antiquarian Wallace Nutting, preservationist William Sumner Appleton, and artist John Templeman Coolidge III were drawn from Massachusetts to the scenery, the history, and the architecture of dilapidated Portsmouth mansions.

Colonial Governor Benning Wentworth had been dead and buried in St. John’s cemetery for more than a century when the Coolidge family bought his Little Harbor mansion in 1886. J. Templeton Coolidge came from well-to-do, socially prominent Boston stock. After graduating from Harvard with a fine arts degree in 1879, he refined his oil painting talents in Paris. His wife Katherine Parkman was the daughter of renowned history writer Francis Parkman, also of a wealthy Boston clan.

Wentworth Mansion at the time of the Coolidge Family / SeacoastNH.com

Frozen in time

Like most historic houses, we tend to think of the rambling Wentworth-Coolidge Mansion as empty architecture frozen in time. Beautifully situated on Little Harbor, it is forever linked to its elderly aristocratic owner who married his housekeeper who was 40 years his junior. Their May-December romance is the subject of an historically inaccurate poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Wentworth, appointed by King George II was a powerful figure and shaped both NH and Vermont history.

There is no Georgian mansion like it anywhere in America. Assembled from four or five 18th century building frames, the 40-or-so surviving rooms are all different. NH state historian James Garvin calls it "a rambling, somewhat incoherent mass of architecture". The mansion served as a country gentleman’s farm and the colonial seat of New Hampshire before the Revolution. The original governor’s council – mostly the governor’s relatives – met here in a large room where Benning flaunted his wealth. The governor’s council still meets here symbolically every year or two and the building is now owned by the state.

We forget, however, that historic houses have many lives. Between the Wentworths and the Coolidges, William Cushing ran the property as a farm. His nephew William Israel inherited the property that slowly fell into decline. Israel, who is inevitably described as "eccentric", was known to give tours of the old governor’s mansion to anyone who asked. According to Garvin, with the exception of George Washington’s home at Mount Vernon, these historic tours beginning in the 1840s were among the first in the nation.

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