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State of the First NH State House Revealed

First_NH_State_House_00Here we go again. It’s been stripped, sold off, broken apart, moved across town, remodeled, moved again, disassembled, trucked to Concord, stored in a trailer, eaten by bugs, and studied piece-by-piece at great expense. The surviving bits of New Hampshire’s First State House once stood in the middle of Portsmouth’s busy Market Square. Now it’s time to decide, once and for all, what its future purpose will be. Is it a priceless artifact of New Hampshire history with an important story to tell? Or is it a crumbling over-analyzed wooden footnote to a forgotten era?



UPDATE: Official State Report Recommendations
Rebuilding First NH State House not recommended
State House Still Crazy : Commentary

On November 14, Portsmouth will get a long-awaited progress report on the status of the colonial state house. It is a reminder that, once upon a time, Portsmouth was the provincial capital of New Hampshire. Experts hired by the NH Division of Historical Resources (NHDHR) will reveal their findings after years of research into the remnants of the structure. And they will ask the burning question – what the heck do we do with it now?

A little background

By1836, having survived the city’s three downtown fires, the once-handsome colonial State House had become an eyesore and an obstruction to traffic. The city ordered it removed from the center square. Captain Israel Marden bought the building and stripped off its architectural elements for salvage. He sold the surviving one-third of the building to Mads Danielson who carted it to a vacant lot on Pitt Street (later 47 Court Street) and remodeled it into a townhouse.

Fast forward to 1958 when the founders of Strawbery Banke Museum dreamed of rebuilding the state house as part of an imagined view of Portsmouth in its colonial hey-day. The building was moved to the 10-acre museum campus in 1969. But under new management, and with over 30 intact but deteriorating historic houses to maintain, the mission of the museum shifted away from the “colonial village” idea. A bill to restore and reconstruct the First State House was introduced into the NH legislature in 1989, but the $1,175,000 appropriation was not funded. No longer part of the plan, the state house was eventually disassembled and moved to Concord in 1990 where it sat in a 40-foot trailer.

But, for a few, the dream of rebuilding the state house continued. In 1998 Portsmouth Mayor Evelyn Sirrell formed a blue-ribbon committee to study the feasibility of reconstructing the Old State House. The State House Committee discussed the idea for a decade. They sketched plans, searched for a building site and for funding, built a wooden model, installed a plaque in Market Square, and disbanded in 2008.

Meanwhile in 2004 Sen. Judd Gregg announced that he had obtained $250,000 in federal funds under the Economic Development Initiatives program to study the state house. The money, approved in 2007 and managed by NHDHR, was earmarked for research only. It could be used to study “the resource,” but not to reconstruct or repurpose the remains.





Under the microscope

What we have left are 490 pieces of the 18th century building. These pieces are largely the internal timbers of the one-third of the building that was moved to Court Street in 1836. There are some framing elements and old floor boards. The rest is gone, although portions of the granite steps survive and an iron balcony, presumed to be part of the First State House, has appeared and disappeared in the 20th century. Imagine a jigsaw puzzle in which 67% of the pieces are lost, and the rest of the picture is full of holes.

In January 2008 the conservator hired by NHDHR released a “Conditions Assessment” of the puzzle pieces. Preservation consultant Christine Miller of Pennsylvania photographed and assessed every artifact for rot, splintering, cracking and insect damage. At least 410 of the 490 pieces “retain high integrity and are generally in good condition,” Miller wrote. But she advised against rebuilding the state house from its original timbers. Any reconstruction using these elements, the report concluded, would be “largely incomplete.”

Even the small extant portion of the First State House has no first floor, plaster, windowsills, chimney, wall paneling, stairs or doors. Other artifacts date from the 1836 remodeling and are not original. If the entire building is reconstructed from its skeletal remains, the original pieces would be covered over by modern materials. The best way to serve the public, according to the conservator’s report, is to expose the old timbers as part of a larger interpretive exhibit.

To outsiders, the costly process may seem as slow and uneventful as watching paint dry. It has taken a long time, NHDHR special projects manager Laura S. Black admits, but she says the project is on schedule and the work has been thorough. And the end is near

After nearly four years, the NHDHR is ready to reveal the next portion of the study. The results are dramatic. Next week project architects will present digital images of the surviving puzzle pieces at public meetings in Portsmouth and Concord. The illustration shows “how it would fit together if it were put together,” says Black. She recently replaced project manager Peter Michaud who moved to another position at NHDHR..

“The building conservator and the architects have come in. Now we know what we have and the condition it is in,” Black says.

The illustration, created by TMS Architects of Portsmouth offers a realistic bare bones view of what we have left to work with. The results have been posted on the NHDHR Web site. Using early drawings digitized into AutoCad and a free program called Google SketchUp, the illustration has also been animated. It rotates and spins from a variety of angles.

Other “conjectural” drawings by TMS Architects show the building as historians believe it appeared during the reign of Gov. Benning Wentworth, whose restored 1760-era home at Little Harbor is among the most unique surviving colonial mansions in the nation. The architects have also imagined the building as it might appear if entirely rebuilt in Portsmouth. Another sketch shows only the surviving portion of the First State House attached to an existing modern building. A third sketch depicts only the surviving timbers reassembled like a giant TinkerToy inside a large modern building.





Where to from here?

But when will we see the final designs? When will the planning portion of the project end and the next phase begin?

“The answer to that is next year,” Black says. The federal grant timeline calls for the study of “the resource” to wrap-up in 2012. The money runs out next May.

But first, she says, the NHDHR wants to know what people in Portsmouth think. The conservator and the architect will be on hand for the meeting next Monday and a similar meeting will be held in Concord the following day. All the data then goes to another consultant called an “interpretive planner.”

“What they’ve been brought on here for our project, “Black says of the final consulting phase, “is to look at it in a larger and a broader sense. We have a house, but we don’t have a site,” she says. “It could become an exhibit. It could become a book. It could become a Web site. It could become a video. They’re looking at it creatively.”

These same creative ideas, locals may recall, have been circulating in Portsmouth since the 1990s. The original idea to reconstruct the state house from top-to-bottom first popped up here in the 1930s. It would have been almost entirely new construction in a town that prides itself on its authentic historic houses dating back to 1664. And it would have been costly. Now, based on recent research, it appears wholly impractical too.

But authentic colonial state houses, even fragments of them, are extremely rare. These timbers are still historic, and may still carry great power and meaning. Legend says that the famous Stamp Act protest began at the First State House. John Wentworth, the state’s last royal governor, was likely inaugurated here even as the American Revolution was percolating. The Declaration of Independence was first read aloud in Portsmouth here. To celebrate passage of the US Constitution, the state house was illuminated in a dazzling display of candlelight. Pres. George Washington reportedly spoke from the state house balcony to an ecstatic Portsmouth crowd in 1789.

“There are lots and lots of great interpretive ideas,” Black says. But we’re really trying to focus in on what is do-able and how to get all those stories out there so that the public can benefit.”

So far it’s all still up in the air. We could rebuild the whole thing from  scratch for millions of dollars or we could grind the First State House into pulp and make a million bookmarks for school children. The public has not yet spoken.

“We don’t know as yet what the end result is going to be,” Black says. “But we’re in a very active moment.”

VISIT the official FIRST STATE HOUSE Web site

Copyright © 2011 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson’s column appears in the Portsmouth Herald every other Monday and exclusively online at his independent Web site Robinson was a member of the 1998 Mayor’s Blue Ribbon Old State House Committee.


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