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Why Old NH State House Should Not Be Restored

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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. .

CONTINUE OLD STATE HOUSE (See Conclusion)

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