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blogbrainsmallSeacoast History Blog #134 
March 14, 2012

The long-touted, rarely-supported idea to reconstruct New Hampshire’s First State House died without a whimper last night in a lengthy final public hearing at the DiscoverPortsmouthCenter. Not a single one of the 14 people in attendance expressed a whisper of hope that the idea is viable. Only 490 pieces of one-third of the interior of the 1758-era building survive. They have been in a 40-foot trailer in Concord, NH since the idea to rebuild the State House was rejected as infeasible by StrawberyBankeMuseum in 1990. Last night marked the final public report in which the latest consultants in a $250,000 study of the remnants of the State House delivered the results of their research. Blake Hayes of the Cherry Valley Group consulting firm stated that reconstructing the building in whole or in part “is not an appropriate use of the resource.”  A final recommendation by the NHDHR and its consultants will be made in May when the HUD grant money that funded the study finally runs out. A final recommendation will be issued then, but it isn’t going to change the facts. Barring the intervention of a very patriotic millionaire, the reconstruction idea is played out. (Continued below)

 

Of the 14 people in attendance at the March 13 meeting, fully half of them were either project consultants or staff members of the NHDHR. (From what I could see, no members of the traditional media were there to cover the story.) That left only seven local citizens, mostly local historians, who showed up for the lengthy and highly detailed reports of the consultants hired by the state. Although there had been a few passionate and vocal advocates of the reconstruction plan in attendance at previous public meetings, no one at the final meeting expressed interest in seeing the remnants of the State House reconstructed.  Because only a small portion of the internal framing of the building exists, Blake Hayes of the Cherry Valley Group said that a reconstruction would not make sense based on an estimated $2.5 million price tag. “It is not the colonial capital,” Hayes said of the renovation idea. “It is a reproduction.”

In a 142-page report posted online, the Cherry Valley Group recommends that the reconstruction idea should be abandoned in favor of two alternative ideas. Hayes recommended either a physical traveling exhibit telling about the First State House or a virtual exhibit online. Curiously, for those who have been following the story, these are the same recommendations that were made more than a decade ago by members (this reporter included) of the Old State House Committee. Hayes described both ideas as “push” models, that is, programs that would promote the history of the State House across the state and onto the World Wide Web, rather than creating a building intended to draw visitors to a specific location. The seven citizens in attendance were in full agreement that – while the story of the First State House is compelling and should be told, that putting the pieces back together is not the best option.

NH_Statehouse_RIPThere was a lively discussion about what to do with the wooden remnants of the building and whether the state, having studied them from every possible angle, could “deaccession” the pieces for other use. Certainly parts of the wooden beams would be included in the traveling exhibit. Another participant suggested creating a chair from portions of the old timbers and placing it prominently in the modern State House in Concord, similar to what was done with wooden pieces of Old Ironsides. A fragment of the old building that once stood in Portsmouth’s Market Square, could be presented to every town in New Hampshire. I suggested giving pieces to school children around the state.

What fascinates me is the way the idea to rebuild the State House survived so long and yet was always impractical. It was first suggested in the 1930s by architect John Meade Howells who hoped to use federal funds to reconstruct an entirely new copy of the building in the South End of town. According to Howell’s visionary plan, the structure would function as a sort of visitor center where people could buy tickets to the historic house museums of Portsmouth. That idea never got off the ground, but it was never forgotten. Portsmouth librarian Dorothy Vaughan, who had worked with Howells, revived it in 1958 when she became the volunteer president of Strawbery Banke, Inc. Her larger dream was to build a reproduction of downtown Portsmouth as it looked in 1800 in the South End of town. That idea quickly became impossible when the poorly funded museum was unable to afford even to renovate the 35 buildings on its 10-acre campus.

Yet the idea would not die. When the surviving one-third of the building was moved from Court Street to Strawbery Banke in 1969, it became a symbol of Vaughan’s vision of the museum versus the vision of the museum administrators that followed her. Although we do not know exactly what the building looked like indoors or out, the Save the Statehouse idea became a cause celeb for a small but passionate group of local citizens. But despite countless hours of meetings and discussion, advocates of the reconstruction plan were never able to find a location for the reconstructed building, or funds to build it, or a solid reason for its use, or money to staff and maintain the imaginary reproduction in a city already busting at the seams with historic museums.

As always, I am more interested in the story than the architecture. And I see a lot of great narrative here – in fact, I see three great narratives. The first is the back-story of the building itself. To me it represents the largely bloodless, highly sophisticated transfer of power from Royal Gov. John Wentworth to NH’s first governor John Langdon. It amazes me that both men lived only a few blocks apart on Pleasant Street in Portsmouth. The second story is how the seat of New Hampshire government moved from colonial Portsmouth to revolutionary Exeter, to the state capital at Concord. The third story is the one that is about to come to an end – the battle to save the building. Why did so many people work so hard for so long to make a copy of this little-known structure. Sure, George Washington spoke from the balcony there and someone read an early version of the Declaration of Independence from its granite steps.

But there’s much more to that tale. It has very little to do with the building and a great deal to do with how we imagine ourselves, how we define our government, and what we think about the past. What we think about the past changes as we change -- which is why I would love to tell this story in a book. And I was not kidding at last night’s meeting when I suggested that we could take the sawdust from the pieces of the Old State House and pulp them into paper. I’d like to put a bookmark in every copy of the book – so that everyone who reads the book can own a bit of the past.

Not every old building can be preserved in its original form. What we need to preserve are the lessons learned. Think about it. A book about the State House with the State House inside it – how cool is that?

MORE ON OLD STATE HOUSE

STATE HOUSE still crazy

 

© 2012 by J. Dennis Robinson. All rights reserved. Robinson is the author of 11 books about the history of America.

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Rebuilding Old NH State House Not an Option
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