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Why Old NH State House Should Not Be Restored

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

© 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 and author of a recent history of Strawbery Banke Museum. .

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