Warner House Built 300 Years Ago
Written by J. Dennis Robinson
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An amazing survivor, the Warner House may be the finest example of an early brick urban home still standing. Although it was nearly razed in the 20th century to make way for a gas station, the Georgian mansion continues to tell tales of the rich and famous as NH's only seaport began its eco9nomic rise in the early 19th century. (continue to article)
EDITOR'S NOTE: Don't miss the free exhibit of Warnhouse artifacts at Discover Portsmouth through August 2016. And contact WARNER HOUSE for in season or special tours.
We’re standing on the front steps of the Warner House looking out toward the Piscataqua River. The year is 1716. Sailing ships, large and small, navigate the tricky current. Directly ahead of us, across a narrow dirt cart path, are the family gardens. Surrounding us are cultivated orchards.
The sumptuous early-Georgian mansion behind us, still under construction at the time, looks like a classy London home miraculously transported to the American frontier. It is only the third brick house built in colonial Portsmouth (and the only one to survive). Its fortress-like walls are two feet thick. Every other building --from the stately residence of lieutenant governor John Wentworth just down the hill towards Puddle Dock, to the low slung warehouses, wharves, and shacks-- are made from wood. Most will burn to the ground within a century.
Three hundred years ago
Picturing the city’s distant past all but boggles the modern mind. We can’t help but see the looming Connie Bean complex across from the historic Warner House on Daniel Street. We struggle to erase the new Memorial Bridge, or any bridge, that stretched across the river to the hamlet of Kittery. Our vision of the past is obscured by wide paved streets and contemporary shops. There was no Queen’s Chapel (now St. John’s) in 1716. The Jaffrey Mansion, that stood on a hill at the site of the federal McIntyre Building did not yet exist. There was no brick North Church, no bustling Market Square (formerly "The Parade"), no Moffatt-Ladd or Langdon or John Paul Jones historic homes.
In fact, the Warner House, now celebrating its 300th birthday, was not the Warner House in 1716. Merchant Jonathan Warner, for whom the house is named, had not been born. It was built for sea Capt. Archibald Macpheadris, a Scots-Irish immigrant, and certainly among the most colorful figures in Portsmouth history.
Big fish, small pond
Three hundred years ago, like today, the city was expanding. Rather than compete in the crowding Boston market, according to historian Sandra Rux, Capt. Macpheadris chose to become “a big fish in a small pond” here. Like the Penhallows, Wentworths, Cutts, Jaffreys, Vaughans, Atkinsons, Pickerings and the Sherburnes--the dominant intermarried families of the era-- Macpheadris became a local powerhouse. He joined the prestigious governor’s council, built ships, bought a sawmill, imported laborers, managed an iron mine on the Lamprey River, and travelled annually to Spain and Ireland to trade.
“We used to say he [Macpheadris] married up,” says Rux, referring to his link to the Wentworth clan, “but as we read more of his family letters, it was probably a marriage of equals.”
Archibald Macpheadris was a worldly and ostentatious, addition to the somber little seaport community. He was an adventurer and a risk-taker. His fleet of merchant ships were heavily armed. Returning from a trading excursion to Cadiz in July 1715, his cargo included a baby lioness. The four-month old cub, newspapers reported, liked to eat live cats, dogs, and chickens. The fate of New England's first lion, after she grew up, is unknown.
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