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The Lost Interview with Dorothy Vaughan

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

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