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Saving the Old State Street Store

 

 

Karen Bouffard inside 102 State Street (photo by J Dennis Robinson)

 

Meet the Drowns

 

"One look at Charles Brewster's Rambles About Portsmouth tells all," Bouffard says. 

According to Brewster and to Bouffard's research, the previous house on this small lot did burn in the Great Fire of 1813. Built in 1791, it had belonged to a prominent Portsmouth silversmith named Samuel Drowne. Back then, Buck Street, as it was known, was dominated by two-story wooden dwellings with shops on the bottom floor. Drowne, the son of a prominent minister, had been a leader in the 1774 raid on Fort William and Mary in New Castle. Prompted by a Boston silversmith named Paul Revere, that local event helped spark the American Revolution.  The Drown family--they dropped the letter "e" after the Revolution--were important local artisans whose work is still recognized and collected today. Samuel's brother Benjamin and his sons also crafted silver and gold.

Portsmouth silversmith TP Drown (courtesy Portsmouth Athenaeum) One son, Thomas Pickering Drown, and his wife Mehitable, occupied the State Street house that burned in 1813. The family was almost ruined by the fire. Their shop, their inventory, and their home were swallowed up. Yet records indicate that, with State Street flattened as if by a bomb blast, the Drowns were quickly back at work. An ad in the NH Gazette days later noted TP Drown's move into a "temporary building on his former stand."

In another newspaper announcement, Drown offered his "sincere thanks to the inhabitants of Portsmouth...for their benevolent exertions in saving a proportion of his property in the late fire." Drown hoped that, in a few days, he would be able to gratefully acknowledge each favor with some small gift to those who wished to visit his stand.

"Talk about spirit," Bouffard says.

The Drowns hoped to rebuild, but the new Brick Act was soon in force, and the cost of bricks was prohibitive. To make matters worse, Samuel Drowne had taken out a loan for $1,500 that he could no longer pay back. But there was one exception. If the replacement building stood no more than one-story with an attic, it could be made of wood. The low elevation would make it possible to put out a fire that usually started from burning embers on the roof. Soon the Drown House was sandwiched between two brick structures. But "Old Portsmouth" was gone and the city center would never look the same. 

"What we see today is the wooden house the Drown family built immediately after the fire when the city was in ruins," the new owner concludes. "Drown was allowed to build in wood by special exception."

Two centuries later, the Drown House is still the exception to the rule in a city dominated by brick. The Brick Act, however, was deemed unenforceable and soon faded from the books. Samuel died the following year and Thomas never recovered from his losses and moved away. Bouffard's research shows that the building was soon sold to an Italian confectioner, Dominick Peduzzi, as an investment property. Peduzzi is known for holding the city's first Catholic services in his shop at the corner of Fleet and Congress streets. He added the dormer windows to the attic floor.

Silverware by the Drown family of Portsmouth, NH

 

Dream team

Work continues at 102 State Street. A commercial and residential space are planned. Forensic work, carefully peeling back layers of time, has revealed the original floor plan and window/door arrangement. The new owner has chosen design elements as faithful to the original as possible, she says, while still meeting modern day code requirements.

To do so, Karen Bouffard has gathered what she calls a preservationist's "dream team." Architectural historian Richard Candee and Brick Act scholar, encouraged her early efforts to save the building. Anne Whitney is the architect. Carpenter John Schnitzler has long been associated with restoring buildings and wooden fences at Strawbery Banke Museum and other historic houses. Carpenters Carl Aichele and Henry Irons have been doing historic rehab "since the beginning of time," Bouffard says. And historic mason, John Wastrom, "has touched nearly every historic brick in the city--twice." 

Bouffard does not sermonize. "My thought about historic properties," she says after some urging, "is that they are what makes Portsmouth special." She mourns the many buildings razed by urban renewal. She sees no particular merit in taking buildings down, and then building modern replicas.

"I didn't want to see this structure lost like those before it," she says.

Asked whether the satisfaction of saving one small building is worth the enormous effort and expense, Karen Bouffard pauses, and then sums up. "You take," she says, "and then you must give back."

Copyright © 2015 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson’s history column appears in the print version of the Portsmouth Herald every other Monday. He is the author of 12 books. His latest, Mystery on the Isles of Shoals, closes the controversial Smuttynose ax murder case of 1873. (See SmuttynoseMurders.com) It is available in local stores and in narrated form by Audible.com. 

 

 

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