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The Fall and Rise of Portsmouth NH

Remember we were great

But a funny thing happened on the way to skid row. Amateur historians created the Portsmouth Athenaeum in 1817. They smoked cigars and read books and talked about the good old days when Portsmouth was important. In 1823 they celebrated the city’s 200th anniversary (the landing of David Thomson at Rye). They spruced up the city, threw a series of big homecoming parties, and invited their prodigal sons and daughters to visit.

People came in droves to a series of nostalgic celebrations. They arrived on an efficient new network of trains, trolleys and ferries. They left their work-a-day jobs in the hot, crowded, polluted cities and escaped to the fresh sea air. They stayed in tents and guest homes and in the huge new luxury hotels that sprang up along the shoreline and out at the Isles of Shoals. And they were drawn to the ramshackle wooden mansions – once home to wealthy colonial merchants – that were still standing all along the Piscataqua. The tourism industry was born.

The second Golden Age

Portsmouth almost killed the golden goose. Scores of architectural treasures were torn down to make way for bank parking lots, shopping malls and bowling alleys. By the mid 1950s benefactors living outside the city had preserved half a dozen historic homes, restoring them one by one, and opening public history museums. But Portsmouth residents, still looking to modernize and find something to sell, invested little in their shared heritage. Following World War II, with the economy again failing, the destruction continued until preservationists turned the tide. Strawbery Banke created a 10-acre museum. Theatre by the Sea opened on Ceres Street. The city launched a campaign to renovate Market Square. Prescott Park launched a summer arts festival along the river.

The Music Hall, destined to become condos, was saved. A flood of young artists and artisans were drawn into the action, kicking off a cultural renaissance.

The rest, as they say, is history. Over the next few decades, a rough and tumble seaport morphed into a heritage destination. Shops and restaurants thrived. Hotels appeared. Parks revived, festivals were born, sidewalks widened, and the waterfront revived. A convention center is planned.

Portsmouth did not forget its maritime past, nor is it stuck there. The city has learned through trial and error that culture and business work together. Economic success and preservation are not enemies. We must welcome tourists eager to share our extraordinary quality of life, not dis them for stealing our parking spots.

But this is still a fragile economic system. One oil spill, another devastating fire, the loss of more historic structures, the departure of the artistic community – each shift in the investment formula impacts the bottom line. And the bottom line is this – rich or poor, we all love this place and we all need to carve out a living. How we make that happen together, especially in these rocky economic times, will define the success or failure of Portsmouth’s second Golden Age.


Copyright © 2008 by J. Dennis Robinson. All rights reserved. This article also appears in the November 3, 2008 edition of The Portsmouth Herald. Robinson is the owner of the popular history web site His latest book is Strawbery Banke: A Seacoast Museum 400 Years in the Making.


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