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blogbrainsmallSeacoast History Blog #131
November 16, 2011

There were no surprises at this week’s public forum on the status of the First State House. The lunatics are still running the asylum. Despite a $250,000 federal grant to study the remains of the 1758 building that has been moldering in a trailer in Concord since 1990, those in Portsmouth who passionately want to bring the long-dead structure back to life refuse to give up. With no building site, with no money, with only 480 rotted internal timbers, and without even a clear idea what the building is for – they’re still giving the poor corpse CPR and zapping it with one crazy idea after another. You have to admire their persistence, if not their ability to read a death certificate. (Continued below)


UPDATE: Rebuilding not an option

What we’re seeing might well be called the Portsmouth Paradigm. It goes something like this: If it can’t be done, try harder. Time and again people have accomplished the impossible in this town simply by being too blind to see and too bull-headed to quit. Many of our historic houses were saved against all odds, usually by outsiders who rode in at the last minute with the funds to pay off a greedy developer. By rights, Strawbery banke Museum should not exist, nor should The Pearl, the North Church Steeple, Prescott Park, Market Square Day, Seacoast Rep, the Music Hall, Discover Portsmouth and a host of other great ideas snatched from the jaws of imminent death. We do love a cliff hanger around here, and we do love our historic and cultural sites.

MORE ON First State House Meeting

But sometimes the fat lady sings and it really is over. After raising only one percent of its $10 million budget, the RANGER Foundation (dedicated to rebuilding John Paul Jones’ ship) folded its tent and slipped into the night. We tried and failed to save the Memorial Bridge, but when the DOT gave her the last rites, we waved good-bye.

I didn’t attend the meeting on Monday, but I read the State House reports online. What the consultants for the NH Division of Historic Resources are saying, from my reading, is that the building as a building is kaput. The old timbers might be used in a museum exhibit, but only framing pieces from one-third of the building exist. We knew that 50 years ago, and $250,000 later, it’s still true. Imagine re-animating your great-great-grandmother with nothing but her rib cage.

Yet the fringe preservationists persist. I feel their insanity. I was one of them for years when Mayor Evelyn Sirrell appointed me to the Blue Ribbon Committee to study the State House back in 1998. But it slowly became apparent that in meeting after meeting we were getting nowhere. When Sen. Judd Gregg somehow managed to cook up a quarter million dollars worth of pulled pork from the federal budget, Committee members cheered. But they didn’t understand then, and don’t understand today, that all the money was required by law to go into research. There is apparently no statute of limitation on whining.

What they still seem not to comprehend is that anyone can reconstruct a copy of New Hampshire’s First State House. Nobody owns the patent. I’ve been in touch with a group in Ireland that wants to rebuild the RANGER. I’m on the advisory board of another group in Florida that wants to rebuild the RANGER too. No one needs permission to build a copy. They just need money, a mission, and a chunk of land. I think we estimated the reconstruction cost at $1.7 million back in 1998. Let’s call it $2.5 million today, just for grins. But the bits of wood that remain have nothing to do with the copy. They’re just spare parts.

As I recall, the Blue Ribbon Committee studied at least 20 potential sites in Portsmouth to erect their imagined building. None worked out. Now we hear there is a plan to put the State House on federal land where the US Post Office stands. It’s all sketched out on paper an advocate told me the other day. So what? I can hire an artist to sketch my bedroom inside the White House, but is that really a plan? When I asked the advocate where the money will come from if the government hands over the site, he had no clue. When the planner spoke at the State House hearing the other day, he refused to give his name. This isn’t planning, it’s dreaming, anonymous dreaming to boot. And if this dream gets built, the actor playing George Washington will still be standing on the imagined balcony of a fake building. Nothing wrong with that, but face facts.

So let’s say the dreamers find $2.5 million, locate a free lot in the city and build the thing. Except for the day each year when the fake George Washington waves from the reconstructed balcony – what do we do with the building during the other 364 days per year? The committee I served on faithfully could never get its mind around this thorny question. Back in the 1930s, when the State House reconstruction idea first popped up, it was to be a tourist center. We have three of those now – the chamber, the Tyco Center and Discover Portsmouth, so that idea is out. Museum admissions are down in a city already packed with superb historic venues. People aren’t going to pay to see a reconstructed state house with so many authentic gems in town.

Who pays to keep the reconstruction going? Who pays the electrical and heating bills, shovels the snow, cleans the wooden floors, locks the door, fixes the roof? We could never get past these costly questions in committee.

The beauty of the Portsmouth Paradigm is that, even when the fanatics are clueless, they press on. Like zombies, they are practically unkillable. My favorite of all the wild ideas offered was a suggestion that the State House be rebuilt at the traffic circle in place of the state liquor store -- state legislators upstairs, booze and souvenirs downstairs. You could charge admission for ideas that funny.

The funniest thing about the liquor store idea is that it has historic validity. After the chunk of the State House was removed from Market Square in 1836, the surviving piece ended up at 47 Court Street as a rental unit. By the 1960s, before it was moved to Strawbery Banke Museum, the old building was reportedly being used as a storage facility for the state’s alcohol overstock.

What we mostly did on the committee was talk. The strategy seemed to be that we would talk until the money showed up. Decades earlier Sen. Elaine Krasker almost got the First State House funds, but Gov. Meldrim Thomspon and the economy killed the million dollar appropriation. Yet the committee talked as if the funds were still sitting in a secret bank account decades later, available if only we could pull the right lever. It was the original New Hampshire “state” house, after all, and we figured it was up to the state to save the building. New Hampshire? It would have made more sense to ask Vermont for the money. And if not the state, then the feds should pony up. That has long been the mindset in a town weaned on federal funds for urban renewal, the naval shipyard, Pease Air Force Base, and more. Uncle Sam would certainly save the day, we said.

The committee talked for 10 years until the current mayor turned out the lights and sent them home. But they’re still talking. And the NHDHR is too polite to interrupt. The solution, of course, has been with us all along. We need to remember and honor the First State House by creating a book, making a video, putting up a Web site, and constructing a display using some of the old timbers. We need to send that portable exhibit for a long slow tour to all the disparate fiefdoms of New Hampshire. The exhibit will be fascinating, and it’s going to show all those lake and mountain and city-folk where New Hampshire started – right here.

The solution is a no-brainer. But never discount the Portsmouth Paradigm that presses on against all evidence and all odds. So let’s drink a toast to the success of the First-State-House-Liquor-Store-Legislative-Chambers-and-Gift-Shop. Around here, there’s no such thing as a crazy idea.

© 2011 by J. Dennis Robinson. All rights reserved.

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