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How the Coolidge Family of Boston Saved Wentworth Mansion

Growing up Coolidge

It is a fair bet that the old governor’s mansion was never livelier than when the Coolidge clan was in residence. Templeman and Katherine had five rambunctious children who were brought up steeped in the arts. The children spoke French, posed for their father’s paintings, and put on dramatic plays in the pine forest. Eldest daughter Molly, whose bedroom was once Gov. Wentworth’s dressing closet, rode her horse, swam in the creek, and traveled the grounds in a two-wheeled sulky pulled by Billy the Goat. Her early photographs show naked sprites (her sister and brother) posing in the woods and costumed princes and fairies.

Jack, Elizabeth and Louise COolidge as photographed by Molly COolidge/ courtesy Strawbery Banke MuseumIn a memoir published to her grandchildren Molly recalled spending five days in an abandoned house on Leaches Island, within view of the Wentworth Mansion. In another story, she and her siblings went ragged and barefoot to the Wentworth Hotel, a three-mile journey on horseback. Pretending to be wandering minstrels, they played musical instruments and sang for guests at the summer resort, returning home with a pocketful of quarters. At one point a New Castle resident holding a mop burst out of her house and screamed "You get out of here!"

"I seen that hoss in the city," the woman shouted, "and I know you’re rich folks disturbing the poor and trying to get their money. Get along."

The Coolidge life was a privileged one, with maids and cooks, high tea, private schools, and European vacations. These were, after all, wealthy people summering in an even wealthier man’s mansion. Their guests were the movers and shakers of the Boston art world. They did not punch a clock like the rest of us, or worry about the mortgage.

Katherine and J. Templeman Coolidge had five children. Thirteen years after Katherine’s death in 1900, Templeman married Gail Parsons of Kennebunk and they had two boys. Their grandchildren, too, frolicked around the mansion, although they put on their best manners indoors where the aging grampa Templeman could be a loving, but sometimes critical and fearsome host.

Templeman died in 1945 and his wife Gail deeded the 1760-era landmark to the state in 1954. She didn’t have to. The scenic Little Harbor point with the ancient yellow mansion might have become a gorgeous condo park, or the home of another wealthy American family. But today it is open for tours, picnics, art exhibits, weddings, lectures and an annual lilac festival.

Today the state of New Hampshire groans over the few dollars that it spends keeping one of the nation’s most fascinating buildings standing. Today the city of Portsmouth, once a hard-knuckle seaport of blue collar workers, is considered a cultural Mecca, thanks in part, to the Coolidge influence. Today anyone with seven dollars ($3 for kids) can tour the rooms where the governor worked and Molly Coolidge and her siblings played. The grounds and the gallery are free to the public.

All this – and every other historic house in town -- is thanks to "those rich folks" who as we all know, are forever exploiting the poor.

 

SOURCES: (1) "The Coolidge Years" a short DVD documentary by Dennis N. Kleinman; (2) Building Portsmouth by Prof. Richard M. Candee; (3) Once I Was Very Young by Mary Coolidge Perkins with an introduction by Woody Openo.

Copyright © 2009 by J. Dennis Robinson, All rights reserved. Robinson is editor and owner of the award winning history web site SeacoastNH.com. His history feature appears every other Monday in the Herald.

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