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The Lost Interview with Dorothy Vaughan

Audio tape 1969HISTORY MATTERS

A recently uncovered tape transcript with a late Portsmouth historian recorded in 1969 reveals much about the preserving of houses in the city in the 20th century and includes some fascinating background details. Part one of two 


In November 1969 a history professor named Charles B. Hosmer arrived in Portsmouth full of questions. Hosmer was writing a book, now a modern classic, about how Americans preserve their historic sites and buildings. Hosmer sat down for a long and lively interview with librarian Dorothy Vaughan. Strawbery Banke Museum had opened in 1965 with Vaughan as volunteer president of the 10-acre preservation project. Over the previous 50 years, she had also been involved with every historic museum and project in the city.

Hosmer turned on his tape recorder and "Miss Vaughan" held nothing back. Hosmer transcribed the tape, but after reading it, Vaughan refused to let her comments be used in the professor's famous two-volume study entitled Preservation Comes of Age (1981). Portsmouth was only briefly mentioned in the book and Vaughan's candid interview is not among Hosmer's research now archived at the University of Maryland.  

Dorothy Vaughan died just shy of her 100th birthday in 2004. The unseen 42-page transcript was recently discovered among boxes of documents that her heirs gave to the New Hampshire Historical Society in Concord. The interview, never published, is a dishy mix of gossip and facts during Portsmouth's early preservation movement. It is also a rich report on the "making of" Portsmouth as one of the nation's top heritage destinations.

Dorothy vaughan on Rockingham Lion / NH Historical Society


Birth of an historian

Dorothy Vaughan was 12 years old in 1917 when her father took a job at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard and moved the family from Penacook to Portsmouth. At first they lived on State Street across from the Rockingham Hotel. After school during World War I she would go next door to a 1758 colonial mansion she knew only as the "Women's Patriotic League" to roll bandages for the war effort.

"I was interested in all the old houses," Vaughan told Prof. Charles Hosmer, "because it was such a beautiful city then. State Street was lined with trees." When she asked  adults in town about the old house, now the John Paul Jones House Museum, they told her, "We don't know. Go to the library and look it up."

Young Dorothy did exactly that. By 1921, while still in high school studying home economics, she became a page at the Portsmouth Public Library at 10 Middle Street (now Discover Portsmouth). She worked there for the next 54 years, eventually becoming head librarian. Vaughan never went to college, but she had a talent for research. The public library was then the information hub and Vaughan became the go-to person for anyone searching out data on old Portsmouth buildings, events, and family genealogy. When she was stumped by a question, which was often, she rushed down State Street to ask Rev. Alfred Gooding, pastor at South Unitarian Church.  Born in 1856 and educated at Harvard, Gooding mentored the young library assistant "in his long-winded way." He was also president of the Portsmouth Athenaeum and the Portsmouth Historical Society and a library trustee.  

When Gooding died in 1934 at age 78, Vaughan lost her key source for Portsmouth legends and history. Her boss, librarian Hannah Fernald, pulled Dorothy aside. "Now, Mr. Gooding has gone, its up to you," she said. "You've got to stand on your own two feet."

"And so from that time on," Vaughan told Hosmer, "I sort of dedicated myself  to Portsmouth, to finding out the things that people wanted."  

CONTINUE Portsmouth History Tape 

Portsmouth doesn't care

Without formal training in the study of American history or library science, Dorothy Vaughan learned on-the-job. She became fascinated, even enraptured by the city's colonial history and its few wealthy merchant families. Between the two world wars, with the naval shipyard in a lull, Portsmouth was in an economic slump.

"Every time they tore a house down or anything was destroyed it simply broke me all up, even though I was just a young girl," Vaughan remembered in 1969. "I couldn't bear to have any of Portsmouth destroyed, or broken up, or pulled apart."

Independent groups were slowly turning a few of the city's most historic downtown houses into museums and Vaughan became involved in each new project. But more houses were being razed than saved and she was appalled that most locals were willing to sacrifice dilapidated colonial buildings for economic progress. To spur development, based on government-sponsored surveys, the city's oldest neighborhoods were being classified as "blighted" areas and "slums."

John Mead Howells, a well-known architect who summered at Kittery Point, hoped to attract federal money to restore rather than destroy old wooden homes in the city's South End. Howells was then involved in a successful restoration project in old Charlestown, South Carolina. He dreamed that Portsmouth's waterfront might become a national park. Vaughan did research for Howells popular photography book on the colonial architecture of the region. But unable to attract funding, the Howells' project fizzled and was abandoned.

"And this is it," Vaughan told Hosmer. "The people of Portsmouth have lived here all these years. They've lived with these old houses, and they've meant very little to them. And the people that come in from the outside and see them, the carpetbaggers like myself and Mr. Howells ... have come in and seen the beauty here and wanted to do something about it."

Assembly House postcard 

The Mayo Project

In 1937 another "carpetbagger" named Chester Mayo was appointed "Captain of the Yard" at the shipyard in Kittery. Captain Mayo bought a house in Portsmouth and fell in love with the charming aging city. An efficiency expert, Mayo pulled together a volunteer team including a banker, a businessman, a lawyer, a wealthy Boston socialite, an artist, the owner of the Portsmouth Herald, and the city mayor.   

Vaughan was thrilled to be invited to join the elite group as a researcher and publicist. As so often happened, the weight of the project fell on her, she said. Over the next four years, the members met frequently for tea at Mayo's home. The captain commanded them like a drill sergeant, Vaughan recalled to Hosmer, handing out detailed assignments and enforcing strict deadlines.

"His idea was this simple," Vaughan said of Mayo. "We'd make a list of the houses that were worth saving and we would try to save them right on their sites." The group hoped to place plaques on buildings where historic events had occurred, such as the Assembly House on Vaughan Street (now gone) where George Washington had attended a dance. The goal was to "get the whole town so excited about Portsmouth and about their houses that they'd want to do something," Vaughan said. With no funding or legal clout, the Mayo team hoped only to encourage building owners to take patriotic pride in their old structures, often divided into low-rent apartments at the time, some without indoor plumbing or heating.

"It seemed like a wonderful idea, " Vaughan told her interviewer. She was in charge of creating the list of historically important houses. When she complained to Mayo that she was too busy with her library job, the captain assigned her a "gob," slang for a shipyard worker who did not have much work, to type up her notes and help with her reports.  "It seemed as if we might really get off the ground. But then Pearl Harbor came, and nothing happened."

With the war on, Captain Mayo was reassigned to another location in 1941. Although he promised to come back and finish the preservation project, he never returned to Portsmouth. The Mayo project, like that of John Mead Howells,  went down the drain.


CONTINUE Lost Interview


Saving the Imaginary Past

Prof. Charles Hosmer was extremely interested in why the two early Portsmouth projects had failed while Charlestown's preservation efforts had succeeded. He also wondered why a city as small as Portsmouth came to have eight (now nine) historic house museums, plus the campus at Strawbery Banke. This was "a very high concentration" of museums, Hosmer told Dorothy Vaughan. In their 1969 interview, he pressed her again and again to explain exactly how, 30 years before, she had decided which buildings were worth preserving. What were her criteria?

First, Vaughan explained, she had listed all the important houses that had already been lost, whether demolished or deteriorated. From that she created a shorter list of important buildings that were gone, but that she believed should be "brought back."

Was she really talking about reconstructing lost buildings? Hosmer asked if she hoped to make modern copies of structures that had disappeared long ago.

Yes, Vaughan explained. She wanted to bring back the past, including the 1631 "Great House" where Portsmouth's first European settlers had lived and the 1756 State House that had once stood in Market Square. She then created a list of  "the things we couldn't afford to lose, that we'd better keep an eye on" and those that needed to be "restored" with new roofs, a fresh coat of pain, an historic plaque, and a pretty garden.

The efforts of the Mayo team, Hosmer came to understand, was less about historic preservation and more about beautification. Vaughan's interest in historic houses was based, not necessarily on their architectural significance, but primarily on whether they had been the site of a legendary event or lived-in by a famous patriot or wealthy Portsmouth socialite.  Her "Colonial Revival" vision for saving Portsmouth, very common in her time, was not abut accurately recreating Portsmouth as the hard-knuckle seaport it had once been. Instead, it was about glorifying and romanticizing a past that many saw as simpler, less stressful, more perfect, and more beautiful than the present day.

The Colonial Revival movement was more about fashion than fact, more nostalgic than historic. It was also, in many ways, a reaction to waves of foreign immigrants who, some believed, had to be taught "good American values" established by the Pilgrims and the Founding Fathers.  That movement is alive and well today. But in the 1930s and 40s, with economic depression and war, the movement flagged. "The will was not there," Vaughan told Hosmer, to restore Portsmouth to its "Golden Age."

"The desire to do this wasn't strong enough," she said. A small number of people, herself included, were willing to save the city, "but nobody cared."


PART TWO COMING: Vaughan tells tales about Portsmouth's historic house museums. 

Copyright © 2013 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson’s history column appears in the Portsmouth Herald every other Monday and exclusively online at his independent Web site He is the author of 11 books available on For  more on the evolution of historic preservation in Portsmouth and Dorothy Vaughan see Robinson's book Strawbery Banke: A Seaport Museum 400 Years in he Making. 

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