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Saving the Old State Street Store

102-State Street in 1930s by John Meade HowellsHISTORY MATTERS

History lover Karen Bouffard steps up to preserve one of the last wooden buildings in downtown Portsmouth. Built as an exception to the Brick Act of 1814, this 1 1/2 story wooden cape almost met the wrecking ball. Now it's history, and that of the silversmiths Samuel and TP Drown are back in the news.  

 

We almost lost 102 State Street. Dozens of potential buyers wanted to flatten the old wooden cape. And why not? It squats low and defiant between towering brick buildings like a sumo wrestler, refusing to budge. It reminds passersby of an earlier downtown Portsmouth, where craftsmen and their families lived and worked in the same cramped space. It breaks the monolithic streetscape and refuses to be assimilated.

"I had a feeling it was very old," says Karen Bouffard, "but I didn't know much about it."

The building appeared to be doomed. As a real estate broker, Bouffard  knew this was a classic "knock down." Developers would likely raze the old cape and replace it with a four-story brick building. That would fill in the gap that had existed for two centuries -- and turn a tidy profit. Downtown condos are selling for over a million dollars these days.

To maximize their investment, however,  developers need to maximize space. The new building would have to move up and backwards, filling the small grassy courtyard at the rear of 102 State. Potential buyers may have been leery of demolishing one of the oldest surviving wooden structures in the heart of the city.  The property sat for months "forlorn and uncared for," according to Bouffard.

"So I bought it," she says.

102 State Street with carpenter Carl Aichele (pjhoto by J Dennis Robinson)

 

Stepping up for history

"I'm not doing this to sell it," Bouffard explains. The property seemed to call out her name. She decided, almost against her better instincts, to save 102 State from the wrecking ball of progress.

"I like old buildings and I love history," she adds.

Born in Portsmouth, raised in Kittery, Bouffard has watched the city evolve with a mixture of joy and trepidation. She remembers the excitement as a child of crossing the Memorial Bridge to explore the city, especially to ride the elevator at J.J. Newburys. Today Bouffard is on the board of the Wentworth-Gardner House and the incoming president in 2016 of the Portsmouth Athenaeum.

"I bought my first pair of skis in this old building," she recalls, "back when it was Putnam Sports."

The little building at the base of Chapel Street was the 1960s home of Dick's TV, run by the husband of former mayor Evelyn Sirrell. Locals may remember it as the office of an auctioneer, of designer Scott Jillson, or as Mad Lydia's Waltz. Online searches usually bring up a more recent tenant, Canine Cupboard Gourmet Dog Treats. But the story goes much deeper.

When 102 State went on the market last year, real estate promoters dated the building to 1800. That meant it had miraculously survived all three devastating downtown fires at the turn of the 19th century. But how? The third fire swept up State Street, flattening wooden buildings, and leaving only blackened chimneys, and stopping only when it reached the river.   A follow-up law, The Brick Act of 1814, required that the city center must be rebuilt using only fire-resistant brick. The 1800 date, therefore, was wrong. 

"I doubt very much that any digging was done on the history before the sale, " Karen Bouffard says. It was only after purchasing the property for $365,000 that she began her own research. As it turns out, the little shop was brimful of tales.

 

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