The Building in the
Center of the Road
Why the Old Statehouse
belongs in Market Square
Sometimes an idea travels so sharply toward its goal that all other possibilities are split in half by the sheer logic of its flight path. Such is this week's decision to rebuild the Old Statehouse right in Portsmouth's Market Square. William Tell never let fly a cleaner bolder shot.
In the interest of full disclosure, I freely admit to being a member of Mayor Evelyn Sirrell's blue ribbon task force to Save the Statehouse. She buttonholed me at a garden party last summer and, despite my chronic twitching fear of government committees, I agreed to serve. We've been meeting at city hall for months. It's a fascinating group, some of whom have been trying to get this important historic building rebuilt for 30 years.
It almost happened back in 1988 when a bill to the state legislature would have appropriated nearly $2 million for the job. We're talking, after all, about New Hampshire's first seat of government here. It isn't just a Portsmouth thing. This was the building from which the provincial governors ran New Hampshire back when we were British -- and this the whole point of our current struggle to save these ancient timbers. People forget that all of Maine and all of Massachusetts were run by one British governor, while New Hampshire had its own. New Hampshire attitudes were different from the start. That's why we're unique.
Then, of course, times changed and we ran poor John Wentworth and his wife out of town in 1775. He was Portsmouth-born, but he was the British governor, and everything British was instantly out of fashion in the Revolution. Suddenly we were on our own, a state with no leader, a population without a country for a while, until the rest of the nation caught up. The people of New Hampshire first heard the Declaration of Independence read from the balcony of this building. George Washington rode into town on a white horse as children sang "Hail Columbia!" and spoke to us from this building, assuring the nervous new nation that everything was going to be okay. America was going to make it.
We've been talking about this at our Save the Statehouse meetings. But despite some groundbreaking discussion, the media has doggedly focused on the $2-3 million price tag. The press seems fixated, as the press tends to be, on facts -- when, where, how much, how long, how high, how old, how many bits of the original old building are left? They're missing the forest and counting those trees again.
Someone should ask us WHY we're going to all this work to save the last remaining timbers of this old building. Our statehouse is in the same boat as the USS Constitution back in 1830 when the Navy decided to sink her for target practice. She was, after all, just a wrecked old wooden thing. That's when Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote his famous poem. In 123 words he turned a crumbling pile of wood into a sexy national icon and saved Old Ironsides. Too bad he's dead. Holmes knew how to make "why" the most important of all the questions.
As is often noted, the last statehouse timbers are resting in a trailer in Concord, numbered, mapped and disassembled from the piece of the structure that survived when it was moved from Market Square in the 1830s. We've got about a third of the thing. It sat on Court Street as an apartment, a garage and a warehouse to hold liquor. The state first got hold of it in 1969. Then it was moved to Strawbery Banke when the place opened where it was going to be the visitor's center. The money was almost appropriated, but not quite. The building sat around at Strawbery Banke for a few more years and finally ended up in that trailer.
Now one more committee is trying once again. We've put together an exciting plan for the building. We imagine it as a magnet for history buffs ("See Where New Hampshire Started --- Visit the Old Statehouse") It's an ideal location to tie up all the loose ends of state and local history. It will have a great big common meeting place downstairs for public events. Upstairs are the rooms where our ancestors argued out their new definition of liberty. We need to pick up on that debate again. Americans seem unsure again, of just where this country is headed. We need a place to talk it out, a place that reminds us of where we came from and the struggle it took to get this far.
We imagine so much, but reporters don't ask us why. Lately the talk has been all about where, as if where matters in the grand scheme of things. At least it didn't matter too much to me. The committee came up with some numbers and started searching for a site.
Eleven sites were targeted, but no consensus reached. Some people liked the South Mill Pond spot. Others favored the old Strawbery Banke plan or Prescott Park. I was partial to putting it near the state pier or across from the library. It didn't quite fit behind Eagle Photo and there were plans for the lot where the defunct bank hovers off State Street. You name it, the committee tried it. I intimated in this very column a few weeks back that we might build the thing on wheels and roll it around town like Gilley's old hot dog wagon. The Site Subcommittee, chaired by former mayor Peter Weeks, has been doing yeoman's service in picking the best location. They pared the 11 sites down to four. You know the old saying that a camel is a horse designed by a committee. Some of us feared that a big ugly compromise was on the horizon.
Then wham! The subcommittee's solution split the conference table like William Tell's arrow. Like all brilliant ideas, it was in front of us all the time. Just put the building at the point where Pleasant Street meets Market Square. Build it right in the road. No land to purchase. The blocked street creates a nice little pedestrian walkway. A risky three-way intersection becomes a less dangerous spot. The resulting dead end street keeps a few parking spaces active. Presto! The State House is back where it belongs on the old "Parade." God's in His heaven, and all's right with the world.
The committee vote was unanimous, and to my great regret, I missed the meeting to attend another history event across town. Remember me as the guy who stepped out for a cigarette while everyone else signed the Declaration of Independence.
Okay, we're still a few million dollars shy of completion, but the hardest part is done. This visionary idea, if carried through, will change the shape of downtown Portsmouth people everywhere will know we're really serious about our history. A lot of people may scream, but a lot of people don't know what they're screaming about. The original State House sat plonk in the middle of Market Square between the North Church and the Athenaeum. It hunkered there from about 1760 to 1836. It was designed by British subjects of the king and removed by free Americans. The committee just wants to put it back where it belongs --- give or take a few yards.
But why do we need it, you ask? Good. Now you're finally asking the right question.
Color picture of the Salem Court House courtesy of Peabody Essex Museum. For other pictures, click to see source. All use must be attributed.
Read Brewster's 1836 final statehouse tour
Click for complete history of old state house
More Statehouse pictures
Article by J. Dennis Robinson
Article and page design
© 1999 SeacoastNH.com. All rights reserved.
Don't miss Dennis Robinson's new column "Seacoast Rambles" every other week in Foster's Sunday Citizen at your local newsstand.
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