Why Old NH State House Should Not Be Restored
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Written by J. Dennis Robinson

statehouse00.jpgHISTORY MATTERS

A key new study reinforces the suggestion offered by history professions for over 40 years – rebuilding the 1758 Old NH State House from its ancient timbers is a bad idea. Our original in-depth report tracks the full story of why this historic building may forever rest in pieces.




Old State House Official Timeline

Why the State House Still Rests in Pieces

NOTE: HISTORY MATTERS appears every other Monday in the Portsmouth Herald. For more essays visit As I Please     

We should stop kidding ourselves about the Old State House. Short of traveling back in time, not even Superman could "save" the colonial structure. The 1758 courthouse, built under British rule, once dominated the center of Portsmouth’s Market Square. Later considered an eyesore and a public hazard, the dilapidated building was sold for salvage to Capt. Israel Marden in 1836. Marden stripped off and sold the important architectural features.

Less than one-third of the building was moved a few blocks away to 47 Court Street. That piece was remodeled and rented as a 19th century residence, then later used as a liquor warehouse.

For over 70 years patriots and preservationists have tried to rebuild New Hampshire’s first State House from the bits that survive. At least four passionate attempts have failed for lack of funding, or location, or public interest. Moved three times, the wooden skeleton of the surviving section was methodically dismantled in 1989. Today it still rests in pieces in a 40-foot metal trailer in Concord. Experts hired by the NH Division of Historic Resources will soon determine the fate of the Old State House as their two-year federally-funded study comes to an end.

The prognosis is not good. Preservation consultant Christine Miller has photographed and assessed every artifact for rot, splintering, cracking and insect damage. Her report was completed in January 2008. At least 410 of the 490 pieces "retain high integrity and are generally in good condition," Miller writes. But her report, published online by NHDHR, carries a killer conclusion. She advises against rebuilding the State House from its original timbers. Any reconstruction using these elements, the report concludes, would be "largely incomplete".

The problem is not with the surviving relics, but with the many missing parts. Even the small extant portion of the Old State House has no first floor, plaster, windowsills, chimney, wall paneling, stairs or doors. Other artifacts date from the 1836 redesign. Regenerating a new building from these old parts makes little sense, according to the report, because the historic pieces would be covered over by modern materials anyway – and would not benefit the public. The surviving elements of the State House, according to the conservator’s view, will best be used as part of an exhibit.

We can, of course, still build a replica without using the old timbers. Anyone with the money, the site, and a good blueprint can still build a reconstruction of the 1758 State House. Creating a modern copy, subject to current building codes, has been estimated at $2 - $3 million. Portsmouth, however, has a longstanding aversion to reproductions due to its many authentic historic house museums.

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Why the State House matters

New Hampshire has largely been ignored in the textbooks of America. Local historians argue that Portsmouth, founded soon after the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth, MA, evolved into a sophisticated colonial capital, then played a role in the American Revolution. The Old State House became a symbol of those grand days for later generations. The very existence of the building indicated that Portsmouth was a "player" along with other significant locations like Williamsburg, Annapolis, Boston, Providence and Philadelphia. When each of these cities restored or replicated their early state houses in the 20th century – Portsmouth citizens naturally wanted to do the same.

The idea to rebuild the Old State House in Portsmouth first came from architect John Mead Howells in 1935. Howells proposed that the city’s entire South End could be restored as a federally-funded project. A reconstructed state house, Howells suggested to President Franklin Roosevelt, would make an ideal visitor’s center if Portsmouth was declared a National Park. Howells’ plan fizzled, but the idea stuck.

Revolutionary politics took place as much in taverns and private homes as in courthouses back then. History has left us with only a few exciting and documented moments associated with the State House. Where legend ends and fact begins is difficult to parse. Portsmouth’s last royal governor John Wentworth was likely sworn in here. A 1765 protest of the Stamp Act reportedly began in these hallowed halls. The Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights were read out from the State House balcony, legend says. President George Washington waved to the crowds from the same balcony during his visit in 1789, although Washington made no mention of this in his private journal.

Those who point to Portsmouth as New Hampshire’s first capital, tend to ignore how quickly that moment passed. Because Portsmouth was vulnerable to British attack by sea, the state capital was almost immediately moved inland to Exeter during the Revolution, after which it migrated west to Concord where the current State House stands.

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Try and try again

Inertia to rebuild the State House reached its peak in the second half of the 20th century. Librarian Dorothy Vaughan and attorney Jeremy Waldron championed the cause as an integral part of the creation of Strawbery Banke Inc., an historic restoration project in the South End. Vaughan had worked with John Mead Howells in the 1930s and seems to have recycled the State House concept to anyone who would listen. Federal urban renewal officials widely promoted the idea that Portsmouth was replacing a slum with a patriotic restoration. A 1959 sketch of the State House featured prominently in the early fundraising plans for Strawbery Banke. In fact, Vaughan’s ultimate dream was to rebuild a 1790 replica of the entire Market Square (formerly called "The Parade"). Speaking to local civic groups, Vaughan said that her ideal "Colonial Village" at Puddle Dock would also include a copy of the North Church, the Athenaeum and a replica of the tall ship RANGER.

In 1969 the state of New Hampshire moved the surviving third of the State House across Court Street to Strawbery Banke in hopes of turning it into a visitor center there. Other outdoor museums of the period – like Colonial Williamsburg, Plimouth Plantation, Mystic Seaport and Sturbridge Village

-- all used replica buildings. But Vaughan was simultaneously promoting Portsmouth as a unique city with a reputation for exhibiting only authentic historic buildings, many of them still sitting on their original foundations. With so many Strawbery Banke houses still unrestored, the State House project irritated a few of the museum’s most prestigious advisors. The battle lines were drawn.

Dr. Richard Howland, initially president of the National Trust in Washington, DC and a key player in the creation of Strawbery Banke, was "diametrically opposed" to the plan. Any reconstruction of the State House, Howland later wrote from his office at the Smithsonian Institute in 1969, "would be two-thirds phony and one-third conjectural." When plans for the State House continued, Howland resigned his position fearing that the museum was becoming "a kind of Disneyland."

The battle over the State House raged on at Strawbery Banke for almost two decades. In 1988 state senator Elaine Krasker of Portsmouth introduced a bill that appropriated $1.75 million to restore the building, but the funds were diverted for other uses and, technically, failed to pass. By then Strawbery Banke had changed its mission. Dorothy Vaughan’s dream of an imaginary colonial Portsmouth was replaced by a renewed interest in the 400-year history of the real Puddle Dock neighborhood. The surviving chunk of the State House was packed off to Concord.

A decade later in 1998 Portsmouth Mayor Evelyn Sirrell appointed a blue ribbon committee to study the possibility, once again, of raising the State House from the dead. Ardent fans of the original courthouse, many of them NH attorneys, have met for the better part of a decade. Dozens of potential city sites have been suggested, studied and abandoned. A plan to block Pleasant Street, create a pedestrian mall, and rebuild the State House in Market Square was proposed, then quickly withdrawn.

After 10 years of diligent work under three mayors, the blue ribbon committee has yet to come up with a location, funding or a successful plan for utillizing and maintaining the imagined building. In the meantime, historic state house projects across the East Coast are attracting fewer and fewer tourists. Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, the site that inspired both the 1935 and 1958 State House plan in Portsmouth, is now in severe financial trouble.

The mayor’s blue ribbon group did create a model of the Old State House now on display at Portsmouth City Hall and installed a plaque where the courthouse once stood downtown. Attorney David Engel, member and chairman of the committee for the last seven years, has been promoting the State House restoration since the 1960s. Today he takes a philosophical approach.

"I feel as though we’ve accomplished a lot," Engel says, "even if we never get the state house back up. The city has become a lot more aware of the fact that New Hampshire government began right here."

In fact, the committee has played a more vital role in keeping the Old Statehouse story alive than it imagines. The publicity generated by the committee helped attract Senator Judd Gregg who obtained a $250,000 HUD grant to conduct a thorough study and conservation of the State House remains and to suggest a plan for the best use of them by the end of this year. Some members of the Portsmouth committee initially believed these funds could be applied toward restoring the State House in the Port City. That was never true. All the money went directly to the NH Division of Historical Resources and its consultants since the state owns the remnants of the historic building. .


The Myth of Prescott Park

Recently an editorial in the Portsmouth Herald suggested Prescott Park as the ideal location for a restored State House. The editorial failed to note that the trustees of the park trust fund have repeatedly turned down this idea. It failed to mention that in December 2007 attorney Jeremy Waldron made another valiant attempt to convince the newest park trustees to reconsider. The surviving founder of Strawbery Banke, Waldron has been a champion of the State House restoration since 1958. The trustees listened intently to Waldron’s presentation, and then unanimously rejected the idea.

"It’s pretty clear that they [the Prescott sisters] intention was to build a park, not repopulate it with buildings," says park financial administrator Peter Torrey. "Who would run it? Who would fund it?"

Trustees repeated their concerns that a building the size of the State House would have a major impact on the gardens, water view and open space at Prescott Park. But they also noted that, as a city-owned park, the final decision for such changes rests with the City Council. Trustee Lea Aeschliman did not see the loss of open space as consistent with the intent of the Prescott will. Trustee Brad Lown, a history major and an attorney, says the idea, though noble, is not attractive. Trustee Phyllis Eldridge was troubled by the concept of creating a replica. Building the Old State House from a few authentic pieces, she says, reminds her of the Woody Allen film "Sleeper" where revolutionaries plan to clone a new dictator from the nose of their previous leader.

Even former Mayor Evelyn Sirrell, who launched the State House Committee, says she was "really shocked" to see Prescott Park suggested as a site for the building. In an accompanying Herald poll, readers were asked whether they would rather see the State House rebuilt at Prescott Park or turned into an exhibit at the Cultural Center planned for the former Portsmouth Library building. Readers picked the old library by a tiny margin.

"I’ve got nothing against it going into the old library, don’t get me wrong," Sirrell says. "But I’d still like to see it built."

Where to from here?

Peter Michaud, director of the Old State House research project is staying safely on the fence until the rest of the research is in. Despite the conservator’s conclusion that the artifacts are more appropriate for an exhibit than a reconstruction, he says these are only preliminary suggestions.

"We continue to keep a mind open to all possibilities," Michaud says.

His next project, funded by the HUD grant, is a 3-imensional rendering of the skeleton of the artifacts from the Old State House. The animated CAD presentation will offer a dramatic 360-degree view of all 490 pieces joining together. Produced by TMS Architects of Portsmouth, the project is largely completed and, ideally, will be available to the public on the NHDHR web site.

Prof. Richard Candee, who is spearheading the Portsmouth Historical Society plan to turn the former library into a city-wide visitor’s center says, he too is waiting for the findings of the NHDHR project. An architectural historian and emeritus professor from Boston University, Candee has followed the State House controversy since the 1960s. An acknowledged expert in timber frame buildings, Candee has long suggested that a rebuilt State House is not the best use for the surviving artifacts. A well-crafted exhibit, he says, may serve the public better. He imagines an exhibit combining real artifacts, a narrated video, and interpretive displays that he says will best honor the full and fascinating story of the State House that is still making headlines today.

Whatever happens, Portsmouth journalist Charles W. Brewster would be astonished to see the attention still paid to the Old State House. Brewster was the last reporter on the scene in November 1836 as workmen stripped off the exterior of the courthouse and exposed its timber frame shell. No one else back then, Brewster said, seemed to care. Quoting Sir Walter Scott, Brewster described the ancient structure as "unwept, unhonored and unsung". That is certainly not the case in the 21st century.

FOR FURTHER READING: See the official Old State House report visit www.nh.gov/nhdhr/

© 2008 by J. Dennis Robinson. All rights reserved.

J. Dennis Robinson is a former member of the Old State House Committee and a former trustee of the Portsmouth Historical Society. He is the editor and owner of the regional web site SeacoastNH.com and author of a recent history of Strawbery Banke Museum. .