All About the Old NH Statehouse
  • Print
Written by James L. Garvin


New Hampshire’s first state house has a long and strange history. It was built when NH was a British colony. George Washington spoke from the balcony. It survived all three downtown fires, only to be broken up and moved. It was almost rebuilt at Strawbery Banke. It rests now, in pieces, in a trailer in Concord, NH. And the story still continues. Here is the full chronology by the man who knows the building best.



SEE ALSO: The Day They Took the NH Statehouse

Portsmouth, NH
A complete timeline prepared by state historian Jim Garvin, NHDHR

18th century (scroll down)
19th century (jump)
20th century (jump)

New Hampshire was separated from Massachusetts by the King in Council..

The Province of New Hampshire emitted 25,000 British pounds in bills of credit to fund the new government and to undertake public works, including construction of a state house. The New Hampshire government continued to meet in rented rooms in Portsmouth taverns.

ROLLINSF 0401752
The house of representatives appointed Richard Jenness, Henry Sherburne, Jr., and speaker Meshech Weare a committee to join with a delegate from the council, to select a site for a state house, and to prepare a plan for the building.

John Downing of the council presented a plan for a brick state house to measure 30 by 80 feet.

The house of representatives voted that "the Parade, so-called, by the North meeting-House in Portsmouth . . . is the most suitable and proper place to set the said House upon, provided the Town of Portsmouth will consent thereunto."

The house of representatives voted to appropriate 2,000 pounds to build the state house, but voted that the materials be changed from brick to wood and that a cupola, shown on the plan, be omitted.

After several unsuccessful attempts to get Governor Benning Wentworth to assent to the house vote, the house increased the appropriation to 2,500 pounds new tenor and the governor concurred.

Henry Sherburne, Jr., and Clement March.of the house joined Mark Hunking Wentworth (Governor Wentworth's brother) and Daniel Warner (Henry Sherburne Jr.'s father-in-law) of the council to form a building committee charged with contracting for "the building of said house [with] such person or persons as will build the same in the best manner."

Detail of artist conception of statehouse in Market Square / Bill Paarlberg1758
The committee advertised for bids to frame, raise, and finish the exterior of the building. A few weeks later, this invitation was followed by a second advertisement for completing the glazing, painting, and chimney, together with interior floors, partitions and plastering.

The building was illuminated with fifty pounds of candles to celebrate the capture of Quebec.

The first stage of construction was completed. Total cost was 3,773.3.0-1/4 pounds new tenor, leaving a deficit in the building fund of 1,273.3.0-1/4 pounds.

The building was furnished with chairs, tables, fireplace equipment, and writing supplies.

The house of representatives voted to complete the structure. The second phase of construction included the addition of stone steps at the two end doors, a cupola, a balcony at the eastern end on the second story, and a roof balustrade.

Protests against the Stamp Act were held at the state house.

NH's Gov. John Wentworth was inaugurated in the state house. Wentworth was an American by birth and ancestry, though a British subject like everyone else in New Hampshire.

The second phase of construction and finishing was completed.

A protest against the importation of British tea was held at the state house. (After the attack on Frot William and Mary in 1774, Gov. Wentworth was driven from Portsmouth in 1775.)

The Declaration of Independence was read from the state house balcony.

Peace with Great Britain was declared at the state house.

The state house was illuminated to celebrate New Hampshire's ratification of the United States Constitution. New Hampshire's vote (the ninth of thirteen) established the Constitution as the plan of government for the nation.

President George Washington was received by the citizens of Portsmouth, making a speech from the balcony.


 19th Century History Timeline  (continued)

The surviving third of the state house after many renovations was moved to Strawbery Banke in 1969 and put on blocks before being dismantled and stored in Concord./NHDHR &

Following the first of three great Portsmouth fires, Portsmouth citizens petitioned the general court for permission to remove the state house from the Parade as part of a street-widening program and as a means of reducing the danger of fire from this large, wooden structure. The legislature responded with an act (not utilized at that time) empowering the town to remove the building.

Concord, NH was designated the permanent seat of state government, leaving the statehouse as a Rockingham County court house and a home for various Portsmouth organizations.

The Town of Portsmouth, having assumed responsibility for maintenance of the state house, carried out the first of a series of repairs, some of which entailed removal of deteriorated exterior architectural features.

The Portsmouth town meeting resolved that the state house "ought to be removed" from Market Square.

The Town of Portsmouth entered into agreements with the North Congregational Church, the State of New Hampshire, Rockingham County, and other interested parties to remove the state house from the square. Private citizens subscribed $700 toward costs of removal in order that the square might be opened up to enhance beauty, traffic, and business.

The building was sold to Capt. Israel Marden, who began to strip the building and sold the eastern end of the structure to Mads Danielson, a Norwegian-born boardinghouse proprietor who owned a lot on Pitt (later Court) Street.

Danielson boarded up the open end of the fragment with second-hand timbers and boards and had the shell removed and remodeled into a Greek Revival-style dwelling that long stood at 47 Court Street.


Sarah Haven Foster noted in her "Portsmouth Guidebook" that the building at 47 Court Street was part of the old state house. This was followed by a similar note by Lewis W. Brewster in the "Portsmouth Journal" of April 6, 1878.


 20th Century History Timeline  (continued)

The last surviving piece of the Portsmouth state house around 1935, moved from Market Square 100 years earlier. It was moved to Strawbery Banke Museum in 1969 and dismantled and moved to Concord, NH in 1990. Photo courtesy Portsmouth Athenaeum by Arthur Harriman.

Photographer Caleb Stevens Gurney published his "Portsmouth, Historic and Picturesque." This book included a photo-montage, based on the existing portion of the state house at 47 Court Street, that purported to show the building as it had stood on the Parade "according to the testimony of many old people, who can remember it distinctly." Being based on the remodeled fragment on Court Street, this photograph depicted the building with Greek Revival-style exterior detailing; being guided by the memories of old people who would have seen the building in its days of decline, after the removal of many important exterior features, the mortgage showed the structure with no cupola, roof balustrade, or other imposing ornamentation.

In consultation with Portsmouth mayor Robert Marvin and local architects and historians, Donald Chorley, architectural research advisor to the Works Progress Administration, suggested that the old state house be "rebuilt" as part of an ambitious slum-clearance project proposed for Portsmouth.

Founders of Strawbery Banke, Inc., a historical preservation project, made the acquisition of the building at 47 Court Street part of their plans, proposing to move it to an area to be acquired through an urban renewal program and to reconstruct and restore the building as the centerpiece of a group of buildings to be moved to the site to illustrate the political history of Portsmouth and New Hampshire.

Supporters of Strawbery Banke in the New Hampshire general court secured passage of a law appropriating $35,000 with which the New Hampshire Division of Parks would purchase the building from its private owners and move it to a site within the Strawbery Banke property.

The State of New Hampshire secured title to the building at a price of $13,500 and moved it a short distance to Strawbery Banke at an additional cost of $15,523.

Joseph Hammond, an undergraduate at Boston University, wrote a seminar paper entitled "The New Hampshire Provincial State House." Hammond concluded that the building recently moved to Strawbery Banke property was "unlikely" to be a portion of the old state house, proposing instead that the structure might be part of the contemporaneous Portsmouth alms house which was removed from its site on Court Street at the same time that the state house was removed from Market Square.

Combined with budget and staff shortages at Strawbery Banke, Hammond's report discouraged further investigation or planning on the part of Strawbery Banke, Inc.; the building was largely forgotten by the New Hampshire Division of Parks and Recreation, the state agency that was responsible for it.

The New Hampshire State Historic Preservation Office awarded Strawbery Banke, Inc., a $600 matching grant to "complete the documentary and architectural research needed to establish beyond a reasonable doubt whether or not the structure [at Strawbery Banke] is indeed part of the State House."

Because the award to Strawbery Banke was not acted upon, the State Historic Preservation Office requested that James L. Garvin, curator of the New Hampshire Historical Society, carry out research to "indicate . . . the weight of evidence . . . as to whether it [the building at Strawbery Banke] is actually the state house or not." In two reports to Commissioner George Gilman of the New Hampshire Department of Resources and Economic Development, dated 2 October 1983 and 13 December 1983, Garvin reported on the discovery of the construction bills and accounts for the building at the New Hampshire Division of Records Management and Archives and concluded that the building was part of the state house. He recommended that Strawbery Banke undertake a physical investigation to correlate structural evidence with the newly-discovered documentary evidence.

Randolph P. Dominic, Jr., of Strawbery Banke prepared an "Analysis and Critique of Joseph W. Hammond's "The New Hampshire Provincial State House.""

Strawbery Banke carried out a physical investigation of the building and reported to Commissioner Gilman that they found evidence of the second-story doorway and balcony on the eastern end of the building.

The New Hampshire General Court passed a law appropriating $125,000 to study the building and make recommendations and plans for its restoration and future use. The newly-reorganized New Hampshire Division of Historical Resources (the State Historic Preservation Office) was made responsible for this study.

In response to this law, James Garvin, then employed by the Division of Historical Resources as state architectural historian, further studied the documentary evidence pertaining to the building and wrote a report entitled "Summary of Documentary Evidence, Old State House, Portsmouth, New Hampshire."

The Division of Historical Resources contracted with Salmon Falls Architecture, Adams & Roy Consultants, and Dodge, Adams & Roy, contractors, to carry out a physical investigation of the old state house and prepare a detailed study written by Gregory Clancey and entitled "Historic Structure Report: Old New Hampshire Statehouse, Portsmouth, N.H."

Following completion of this study, state senator Elaine Krasker of Portsmouth introduced a bill that would have appropriated $1,750,000 to restore and reconstruct the old state house in Portsmouth as a museum of New Hampshire history under royal government. By this time. Strawbery Banke, Inc. (now called Strawbery Banke Museum) had changed its interpretive emphasis to focus on the Puddle Dock neighborhood. The museum no longer desired to have the state house on its property except under arrangements that would have been financially advantageous to the institution. Senator Krasker's bill was defeated.

Because the building was in rapidly deteriorating condition, Senator Krasker introduced a bill to appropriate $50,000 to mark each element of the state house fragment, to dismantle the structure, and to transport the disassembled building to a place of safe storage.

The building was disassembled, packed in a purchased second-hand forty-foot trailer, and brought to Concord where the trailer was placed behind the Walker Building at the New Hampshire Hospital, then the site of the offices of the Division of Historical Resources.

When the offices of the Division of Historical Resources were moved from the Walker Building to the Margaret Pillsbury Hospital maternity building at 19 Pillsbury Street in Concord, the trailer was moved to that new location.

Portsmouth Mayor Evelyn Sirrell forms a blue-ribbon committee to again work toward the goal or reconstructing the old state house in Portsmouth. An estimated budget of $2.5-3 million is proposed by committee member David Adams.

A revised Mission Statement is accepted. The Save Our Statehouse Committee, after an extensive search for an appropriate site, proposes that the ideal location for the building is at the end of Pleasant Street in Market Square, just a few yards from its original location on the "Parade."

A plaque honoring the statehouse is placed in Market Square.

James L. Garvin served as Curator of Strawbery Banke during the era when the old state house was housed there. He is currently the state architectural historian at the NH Division of Historical Resources and is a member of the Save Our Statehouse Committee. Mr. Garvin is author or many books and articles including "Historic Portsmouth" published by Strawbery Banke.

Detail of illustration showing Old State House in Market Square circa 1813 © Bill Paarlberg

(c) by author permission. First posted here in 1998.