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State of the First NH State House Revealed


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.



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Tuesday, February 20, 2018 
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