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The Story of South Meeting House




"Ye Old Meeting House" named in the Pickering grant was a sawn log structure built in 1659 on the other side of the South Mill Dam, near the present corner of South Street and Marcy Street. It was evidently also called the Mill-Dam Meeting House. It was home to the original Portsmouth congregation, but by the time of the 1731 move, a substantial portion of the congregation had split off and established a new church in what his now the downtown and which became known as North Church. It still is.

The split, by the way, left some hard feelings and is cited as one of the roots of a rivalry or hostility between the South End and the more northern parts of the city that reportedly lasted at least into the early 20th century. Theologically it was expressed in a move toward Unitarianism by the South Parish, while the North Parish became staunchly Congregationalist. The two congregations also split politically, with one Federalist and the other Democrat.

The present building's roots are reflected in its design. All three buildings were the products of local craftsmen working in a vernacular tradition and very much aware of their predecessors. The 1659 meeting house was oblong with a second floor gallery. The successor 1731 meeting house repeated this basic geometry on a larger scale, adding an attached clock tower with bell, steeple, and weathervane. Later the space between the second story galleries was filled in to create a full second floor. When local joiner/builder/architect Isaiah Wilson drew the plans for this building in 1864, he reproduced the layout of its predecessor, with a full second floor serving as the meeting room. He included the clock tower, bell, and weathervane at the particular insistence of the residents, for whom it functioned as an early internet.

There was continuity in the uses of the three buildings as well. Both the older meeting houses were used for civil meetings and education as well as religious services. Design for the new ward house clearly envisioned use for public meetings upstairs; as we shall see, these included religious services from very early years. The Old South Meeting House had served as an overflow for the Haven School kindergarten and first grade classes, and that was specifically the purpose of the first floor schoolroom in the new building.

The most conspicuous change was to have the new building face East, toward the water, rather than West, as the Old Meeting House had. An early sketch of the old building shows a watering trough and well pump off to the right in front of the church. The pump is gone, but the well is still there, behind the present building, under the old trough. That well figured in the property descriptions of some of the early Pickering lots.

The square in front of the old meeting house was known as the South Parade. Nancy Grossman found in her research that the military organization called the Mill-Dam Rangers mustered there.

The Board of Aldermen finally approved construction of "a Ward Room and School House in Ward Three" in May, 1866. The method stipulated was "by the day,"rather than by a single contract. The list of individuals and companies paid for materials, which remains in City records, comprises a virtual catalogue of the Portsmouth building trades during that era. There are 44 individual names of carpenters, joiners, cabinetmakers, masons, teamsters, and laborers, as well as 33 building supply firms and other companies. (The building committee had an alderman from each of the city's three wards, and one guesses that the work was spread around among constituents.)

The clock was supplied by H.H. Ham, a local "watchmaker." The weathervane was supplied by John A. Winn & Co. from Boston. The original clock was replaced in 1901 at a cost of $725. It had three electrically lit faces rather than the original two.

The new building was finished by the end of 1866, on schedule. On October 8, the Morning Chronicle reported:

"The new Ward House at the southend is also nearing completion, and the neat belfrey of that is another prominent object in the landscape, in a view of the city from almost any point out of it."

Stylistically, the structure that emerged from this process is described by experts as "Italianate with numerous Greek Revival features." The reuse report of 1981 judged it worthy of inclusion in the National Registry of Historic Places. This from that report:

The South Meeting House is significant as a well-documented example of the procedures involved in an ordinary municipal building project of the mid-nineteenth century. Whether or not by intent, a large part of the local building community was involved in its construction, producing a building which was simple, yet dignified and well-constructed. Its most elaborate feature, the Italianate cupola and clock tower, forms the dominant landmark of the historic South End of Portsmouth.

The building served its intended purposes as school, polling place, and multi-purpose assembly hall well into the 20th century. Students used the school until at least 1915. You can still see the blackboards and chalk ledge. Religious use started early, with the "City Missionary" holding Sunday services and another group holding Friday evening services. The ward hall was used for the military draft in both world wars.

The building played a particularly notable role in the African-American history of Portsmouth, as described in the book Black Portsmouth, by Mark Sammons and Valerie Cunningham. The first Black church in Portsmouth met in the South Ward Room in 1873. A later Black congregation that became the People's Baptist Church met regularly in the South Ward Room starting in 1890, with Sunday school at 3:00 p.m. and preaching at 8:00. It moved to its own building on Pearl St. in 1915 and remained active until 1960 or so. For several decades starting in 1882 the annual celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation was held in the South Ward Room, with feasting, music, and speeches by dignitaries of both races.


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Monday, January 22, 2018 
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