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What Happened to Portsmouth North End?


Inside resturant in LIttle Italy in Portsmouth, NH /

Salvaging "The Hill"

With the bulldozers of progress moving in, and Italian residents moving out, preservationists tried a new tactic. Because the small city was already supporting some forty house museums, including about 30 buildings at Strawbery Banke, and other non-profit uses of historic buildings, they had to be creative. The only way to preserve more old buildings, they knew, was to keep them on the tax roles.

Robert Chase of York, Maine, then working as a consultant for the NH Council on the Arts, formed Portsmouth Preservation Inc. with a group dedicated to saving the architecture of the North End. The new organization sold stock and quickly built up capital that members could use to bid on old houses and land for preservation as the city acquired urban renewal parcels in the North End. Investors paid $500 per share. Rather than create more museums or another nonprofit agency, the company planned to restore and return the buildings to private use. It was an idea ahead of its time. In this era federal tax law still favored new construction over rehabilitation. Recycling old buildings for modern commercial use had not yet caught on.

Proposed North End modern design never built / courtesy Richard Candee

In 1969, Portsmouth Preservation, Inc. quickly raised $200,000 and aggressively lobbied to save the North End waterfront. But Walter Murphy of the Portsmouth Housing Authority, while acknowledging the concept of preservation, had no room for historic structures in his all-consuming vision of Portsmouth’s modern future. Preservationists hoped to save up to one hundred structures. As the project dragged on, the number diminished. Eventually, in partnership with its architect and developer, Nelson Aldrich of Boston, Portsmouth Preservation Inc. was able to purchase and "moth-ball" just over a dozen buildings on "The Hill," adjacent to the Parade shopping mall.

Most of the saved structures were moved from the North End demolition area, while a few were saved on their foundations. When Aldrich and his Boston company failed, the cluster of historic buildings were sold to a local property manager at a loss and later adapted for use as office space. The Recession at the close of the Nixon era was a tough time for adapting old buildings. It wasn’t until the "Reagan Revolution" that the federal government came to favor preservation by for-profit companies and adapted tax laws accordingly. Today, that concept helps keeps historic buildings in Portsmouth standing and vital and adapted for business use.

And so the bulldozers moved in. Close to four hundred buildings were torn down and all 221 families and seventy-eight individuals in the largely Italian neighborhood were relocated to new apartment houses, or they moved away. The promised space age complex, however, never materialized. Instead Portsmouth got a large vacant lot that stood empty, as preservationists had warned. It was another decade before the arrival of the Sheraton Harborside Portsmouth hotel.

Across the street the Parade Mall, a stark, new twenty-five thousand square foot industrial building included an A&P supermarket. But that facility quickly went bankrupt, and a once-lively neighborhood next door became a weedy empty lot.


© 2009 by J. Dennis Robinson. All rights reserved. Robinson is editor and owner of and author of several books on local history.

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