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Unraveling Nine Old Wentworth Homes

They were like the Kennedys of NH,
only bigger, before the American Revolution
-- and so a big hotel borrowed their name

Wentworth by the Sea

I’m up to my eyeballs in Wentworths. For months now I’ve been writing what I call a "biography" of Wentworth-by-the-Sea, the historic New Castle hotel that will re-open in June. That’s exactly 130 years after the hotel was conceived by a little known developer named David Chase of Massachusetts and managed by a local guy named Charles Campbell. Both men have pretty much been forgotten, overshadowed by dynamic owners like ale tycoon Frank Jones and in recent memory by the affable Margaret and James Barker Smith. There were a half dozen other owners before Ocean Properties came along and finally breathed new life into the hotel that had been fading before our eyes for the last two decades.

I was talking last week to the great-granddaughter of Charles Campbell, the first manager, who lived on "Campbell Island" just behind the hotel. We were trying to picture Campbell and Chase walking the rocky bluff 100-feet above sea level and laying out the original shoebox-shaped hotel back in 1873. I wonder if they shimmied up a tree to get a glimpse of the famous view from the "observatory" they later built on the hotel roof. I’ll bet they had a few good debates over what to name their new hotel.

John Albee, a summer visitor who in 1874 wrote the only history of "Great Island", a.k.a. New Castle, claims credit for picking the name. Other local hotels had big long names like The Champernowne and The Passaconnaway. Albee admits that he suggested "The Wentworth" to Campbell and Chase because it had a slightly aristocratic sound. And it does, even now.

In Seacoast New Hampshire history, no name carried more clout than Wentworth. In the 1700s the Wentworths were the Kennedys, the Rockefellers and the Roosevelts -- all rolled into a single dynasty. They were rich, political and powerful. They wore the finest clothes, controlled the most land, hosted the best parties, built the prettiest houses and gave rise to the juiciest scandals in the region.

By the time the Wentworth Hotel opened in 1874, the Wentworth family had been out of power for over a century, but their fine mansions and their legends remained. Amazingly, so many of their 18th century homes still survive that even locals can’t always tell them apart.

Wentworth-by-the-Sea, technically, has nothing to do with the historic family, other than the borrowed name. There was a Samuel Wentworth living in New Castle in the 1600s who reportedly ran a public tavern under a sign depicting a dolphin. The hotel adopted the dolphin logo under owner Harry Beckwith in the "Roaring Twenties". But the grand hotel certainly wasn’t named after a colonial fisherman’s "ordinary", the early name for what amounted to a crude bed and breakfast back when New Castle really was an island.

No, the original owners were thinking of the royal Wentworths, three enormously powerful governors who ruled New Hampshire for the King of England before the Revolution. All three governors Wentworth were born here , descended from Elder William Wentworth, a farmer who arrived from England in 1638, settling first in Exeter, then at Wells, Maine, and finally in Rollinsford, NH. Elder William’s grandson John was the one who worked his way up the political food chain. Originally a sea captain, John was commissioned Lieutenant Governor of the colony in 1717.

John Wentworth’s "Great House"

John Wentworth House

Don’t go looking for this one. The original 1695 Wentworth mansion stood on what is today the parking lot of Strawbery Banke Museum off Court Street. It was standing in 1874 when Chase and Campbell built their hotel in New Castle. In fact, it’s sort of standing today in New York. Sadly, it was a victim of the Colonial Revival, pulled down in 1926, its fine wood-paneled rooms were sold, deconstructed, and rebuilt as an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum. John’s son Benning, the next NH royal governor, was likely born there.

MacPheadris-Warner House

Warner House

The first John Wentworth was technically under the thumb of the governor of Massachusetts, but his son Benning was not. In 1741 New Hampshire split from the protection of "Taxachusetts". Gov. Benning Wentworth made his fortune as Surveyor of the King’s Forest, selling tall straight timber for ship masts, and granting town after town – all the way West to what is now Bennington, Vermont. For a while he rented the stately brick mansion next to the modern Post Office on Daniel Street in Portsmouth. When the colonial Assembly refused to purchase the stately home from one of his relatives, Benning built his own rambling mansion on the edge of town at Little Harbor. The Warner House, with its famous paintings and murals is now an independent house museum.

Wentworth-Coolidge Mansion

Wentworth-Coolidge

Arguably the most interesting house in New Hampshire, Benning Wentworth's new home was rumored to have had 52 rooms. In an eclectic design that still baffles architects, Benning combined a series of buildings into a unique home that also held the formal offices of the Governor's Council. The epitome of elegance, the 1758 mansion required a full-time master carpenter and the fireplace woodwork alone took a year to carve.

Benning had plenty of servants, but life was lonely at the top. His wife and all three sons died. When the elderly not-exactly-handsome governor married his attractive young housekeeper, the townspeople could talk of little else. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow turned the story of "Lady Wentworth " into a popular poem and may have visited the mansion just about the time Chase and Campbell were designing the Wentworth Hotel. In their earliest advertising, they made direct reference to the old governor’s mansion just on the other side of Little Harbor from the hotel.

Portsmouth historian Charles Brewster, who may have been the source for Longfellow’s poem, exaggerated Martha Hilton’s youth, innocence and low social status. He describer her as "a careless laughing bare-footed girl lugging a pail of water in the street with a dress scarcely sufficient to cover her decently". Criticized for her devil-may-care manner, legend says, Martha responded brazenly, "No matter how I look, I shall ride in my chariot yet." After the death of Benning and the demise of British rule, not even George Washington could resist getting a peak at the governor’s house, and his widow. Today the Wentwroth-Coolidge Mansion is owned by the state of New Hampshire and open to the public.

The Gov. John Wentworth Home

John Wentworth House

Benning’s public opinion polls faded as the Revolution approached and he was replaced in 1767 by another John, son of Benning's brother Mark, who was a rich merchant. Born in Portsmouth, John attended Harvard where he was a classmate of future president John Adams. John married his Portsmouth cousin Frances Atkinson just ten days after her first husband died suddenly, launching a new family scandal. Unlike his regal uncle, however, John Wentworth had a working relationship with the people he governed. But he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Soon after the local patriots raided the fort at New Castle in 1774, he and Frances and their young son were forced to evacuate their rented home on Pleasant Street in Portsmouth. John had not much liked the "little hut" as he once described the ornate house. It’s far from a little hut today. Now a nursing home, its modern additions extend from Pleasant Street all the way down to the South Mill Pond and is officially owned by the Mark Wentworth Home. Confusing? You bet.

The Joshua Wentworth House

Joshua Wentworth House

Amazingly, four more grand Seacoast homes connected to the Wentworth family survive from the 18th century, each with a fascinating story. The Joshua Wentworth House, for example, stands on the campus of Strawbery Banke Museum, not far from the site of the family's first "Great House" that is now at the Metropolitan. Joshua, unlike his Tory relatives, was a militia colonel in the Revolution and went on to serve in both the New Hampshire Senate and House of Representatives. Threatened by urban renewal in 1973, the 200-year old building was moved from Portsmouth's North End to the South End by barge.


The Wentworth-Gardner House

Wentworth-Gardner House

The jewel of the South End, the 1760 Wentworth-Gardner Mansion is considered to be among the finest examples of Georgian-style architecture in New England. This was the showplace of Mark Hunking Wentworth, brother to Benning and father to unlucky Governor John Wentworth. The famous antiquarian writer Wallace Nutting restored the mansion on the water's edge in the early 20th century and used it as the backdrop for a series of highly collectible photographs. Nutting rebuilt a "chain" of historic New England homes to attract a freewheeling new wave of motorcar tourists, but World War I cut short his entrepreneurial dream. Today the elegant house with its symmetrical facade, painted murals, and rusticated wooden siding is run by a volunteer nonprofit agency.


The Sarah Wentworth Purcell House

Sarah Wentworth Purcell House

You know this one as the John Paul Jones House , another independent house museum, now the Portsmouth Historical Society. Sarah’s "Uncle Benning" was the most important man in New Hampshire when she and ship captain Gregory Purcell built this gambrel-roof home on what is now State Street in 1758. But the captain died leaving Sarah in debt with eight children. Legend says that, to make ends meet, she took in a few gentlemen borders, including the famous naval captain.

The Paul Wentworth House

This one survives, but in pieces in boxes in Massachusetts – but may be on its way back home to Rollinsford. Remember Elder William Wentworth who started all this? His son Samuel headed to Portsmouth to found a royal dynasty, but another son Ezekiel stayed in Rollinsford. Ezekiel’s son Paul built an amazing "first period" mansion that was the dominant home there. But in 1930, around the same time John Wentworth’s home was lost to the Metropolitan Museum, Paul Wentworth’s home was sold, taken apart, and rebuilt in Dover, Massachusetts. It’s been taken to pieces again, and a preservationist group in Rollinsford is trying to buy it back. If they succeed, the 1701 structure will again become the oldest Wentworth-built house in New Hampshire. A later Paul Wentworth – so don’t get them confused – was a British double-agent who spied on Ben Franklin during the Revolutionary War.

Loved, despised, admired, envied -- it was impossible not to react to the mighty Wentworth clan. Only their name was big enough for the Wentworth Hotel, which would soon grow larger than all the famous Wentworth mansions put together.

By J. Dennis Robinson

TOUR TONS MORE  Seacosat
Historic Houses in
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Primary source: "The Wentworth Houses of Portsmouth and Those Who Lived in Them" by James L. Garvin, NH Division of Historical Resources, 1996.

All photos from SeacoastNH.com image library except Joshua Wentworth House photo courtesy of Strawbery Banke. Wentworth-Gardner House photo by Frank Clarkson.

Copyright © 2003 by SeacoastNH.com. All rights reserved..

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