Beneath the Wentworth Dome
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Written by J. Dennis Robinson

Wentworth hotel dome photo by Bill Roy

Originally it hovered above the Victorian men’s smoking area. For 20 years the gilt-edge dome watched as Wentworth by the Sea lay in ruins, deteriorating year to year. Now it stands above a revived hotel and graces the dining room that looks out over Little Bay. Restoration architect John Merkle tells how it survived.




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Its very survival is a small miracle. For two decades as the 20th century came to a close, this gilt-edged dome hovered above an empty room. These were the "limbo years" for Wentworth-by-the-Sea Hotel in New Castle. NH. Five corporate owners came and went as the sprawling 1874 Victorian resort fell into ruin. Where 400 wealthy guests had watched the scarlet sunset, only raccoons, mice and pigeons took shelter.

Wentworth dome 100 years later is now located in the hotel restuarant/ Photo courtesy Wentworth by the SeaNow the historic hotel is back, reopened in its 130th year. From the outside its stately wooden towers and the curving mansard roof look much as they always have. But inside almost everything is new. The steam-powered elevators, a luxury to early guests, have given way to heated, marble bathroom floors and an exotic glassed-in spa. The six original electric arc lamps, the first of their kind in the region, cannot hold a candle to modern high speed Internet service in every room.

During its decline, as preservationists struggled to save the building, more than eighty percent of the hotel was razed. Ornate Colonial Revival columns and sculpted figures were torn down and smashed. But somehow the golden dome survived, its ornate carved spines and hand-painted cherubs are exactly as they were first installed.

Most likel the dome was built for owner Frank Jones, the Portsmouth tycoon who purchased the building in 1879. A brochure from the late 19th century shows a cluster of richly-dressed gentlemen smoking cigars in what was then the guest salon. Jones -- who also owned the Rockingham Hotel, banks, the railroad, a racing stable, the electric and telephone companies, the massive local brewery and at least three homes -- had a taste for the finer things in life. Under his ownership and lavish spending, the Wentworth Hotel became among the most famous in New England.

Painted Portsmouth Dome
from the Frank Jones Era

John Merkle of TMS Architects, still talks about Frank Jones domed ceiling with amazement. His company crafted the design that transformed the gutted historic shell into a state-of-the-art hotel for owner Ocean Properties.

"It’s definitely a unique feature," Merkle says. "A dome is not an easy thing to build, and this one is exactly in the state it was. We didn’t have to do a single thing to it. It still has the original paint and luckily the roof around it was intact and it survived the demolition of the rest of the building."

Painted cherub by photographer Stephen GianottiHistorians are uncertain when the chubby winged figures were painted and the elaborate rosette fashioned in the center. The dome is divided into ten slices and today is the showpiece of the hotel restaurant.

Surprisingly, classic rotunda domes are not just relics of the past. Merkle says he recently built one for a private home in York, Maine. That dome too is decorated with cherubs amid vines of laurel, a standard theme among ancient Romans who popularized the noble dome. Today we think of domes in state capitals and church buildings, but Merkle says they can bring a dramatic and formal look to the foyer of a large house.

"They do take up a lot of volume," Merkle says, "so you lose the space above the dome in the house. Cutting the curved material completely out of wood is time consuming, and not inexpensive. But the finished rotunda creates a very special effect."

Although the Wentworth-by-the-Sea dome was built with the same hand craftsmanship as the one in the modern York home, Merkle says his carpenters had an advantage. They used a computer-aided design system to map out templates for the building contractor. Frank Jones, we can be certain, would approve.

J. Dennis Robinson is author of Wentworth-by-the-Sea: The Life and Times of a Grand Hotel. Originally published in Accent magazine.

CONTINUE to sec.IMAGES of historic dome

100 Years Ornate Dome Images (Continued)

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Illustration of Men's Smoking Lounge in Victorian Frank Jones era showing first known image of dome in background / Image Library

Turn of the century photo with female guest in lounge area under dome / Early Images

Dome in the Beckwith Era (1930s) showing imported Italian art / Portsmouth Athenaeum

Images from Library and courtesy Portsmouth Athenaeum.