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Warner House Built 300 Years Ago

 

 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.

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