Warner House Built 300 Years Ago
  • Print
Written by J. Dennis Robinson

Warner House doorwayHISTORY MATTERS

 

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.  

 

Warner House interior by Sandy Agrafiotis

 

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.  

 

Continue WARNER HOUSE 300th


 

 Warner House sign

 

Indoors is a time tunnel

 

Outside the Macpheadris mansion, life was still harsh. “It was probably a pitiful place,” Rux says of Daniel Street in the early 1700s. “I have a feeling the roads were like mud tracks. You walked or you rode a horse.” 

 

But inside the house is another story. Saved from destruction in the 20th century (locals wanted to replace it with a gas station) the restored urban mansion is considered the best of its kind in New England. The four elaborately painted murals that surround the staircase depict dogs, horses, and life-sized Native Americans. Created around 1718, they are now the oldest surviving wall murals in America. The blood-red woodwork, the ancient counting room, the bedroom repainted with sparkling bits of broken glass--all reflect the original owners. 

 

Two carved cherubic figures (known as “puti”) may have added a decorative element to the front of the house. One stands today inside the front hallway. The other is part of a 300th anniversary exhibit running this month at Discover Portsmouth.

“Archibald was definitely a show-off,” says Rux, a long-time member of the Warner House Board of Governors. “I think we’ve made it possible to get a good sense of what it was like when the Macpheadris family was there.”  

 

guest visits Warner House, photo by J Dennis Robinson

 

Sarah’s legacy

 

We know too little about Sarah Macpheadris. She was, according to legend, a scrupulous housewife. Her house was so tidy, an early historian wrote, that there were not enough cobwebs around to make a good bandage.

 

Archibald Macpheadris died in 1729 making Sarah a young widow. In 1737 she married the very wealthy George Jaffrey II, who was Chief Justice of the Supreme Court for the province. Jaffrey, a next door neighbor on Daniel Street, was also significantly older than Sarah.

During her stay at the Jaffrey House nearby, Sarah rented her brick home to her brother Benning Wentworth, then governor of New Hampshire. Benning’s efforts to get the General Assembly to purchase the house as the governor’s mansion failed. Legend says, Benning refused to pay his sister her rent. She, in turn, refused to reduce the sale price of her house for him. Benning eventually moved to the rambling 42-room home on Little Harbor Road, also a museum today. For a time the Macpheadris house may have been empty.

When George Jaffrey died in 1749, Sarah became a widow again. A portrait of her, painted in 1761, is part of the museum collection. Sarah died in 1778, amid the heady American Revolution. The site of her grave is unknown.

 

 

Sarah and Archibald's only surviving child, Mary Macpheadris , wed a Boston merchant named John Osborne, who later mysteriously disappeared.  Mary’s second husband, Jonathan Warner, took possession of her brick house by English common law when they married in 1760. Although he straddled the political fence between Loyalist and Patriot, Warner survived the Revolution to become a prominent Portsmouth citizen. Historian Charles Brewster remembered him as “one of the last of the cocked hats,” a living artifact of the British province of New Hampshire.

 

The city reached its first economic peak during the life of Jonathan Warner, and had begun to fade by his death in 1814. One downtown blaze swallowed up St. John's Episcopal Church to the rear of his inherited home. Another  fire took out his wooden store across Daniel Street. Amazingly, the 1716 Macpheadris-Warner House survived all three downtown fires that flattened the city like a bomb blast.

 

 

Picturing the city in 1716 is tricky, even for scholars. But we only need to step inside that ancient doorway to catch a rare glimpse of life among the rich and famous three centuries ago.  

Copyright © 2016 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson’s history column appears in the print version of the Portsmouth Herald every other Monday. He is the author of a dozen  history books on topics including  Strawbery Banke Museum, Privateer Lynx, and Wentworth by the Sea Hotel. His latest book, Mystery on the Isles of Shoals, closes the case on the 1873 Smuttynose ax murders.