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The Lost Interview with Dorothy Vaughan


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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