By Robert D. Mussey, Jr.
Elevated on a terrace eight feet above Middle Street in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, James Rundlet's house was calculated to inspire respect. The son of a farmer from Exeter, New Hampshire, and an outsider to Portsmouth society, Rundlet (1772-1852) had come to the town by 1794 and become a successful commission merchant. He fully intended that passersby in the previously unsettled part of town in which he built his house would have to look up to it and that it should represent his important position. His obituary described the house as "imposing in appearance and an object of envy to many who predicted with wise nods that so much pride must have a fall and concluded that he had built his house too high -- but they happened to have been mistaken."
Rundlet left extensive account books recording the costs of constructing and furnishing the house and landscaping the property. It is impossible to determine from these if Rundlet hired an architect, but he did utilize skilled joiners and craftsmen from the area, and it is possible that Ebenezer Clifford (1746-1821), the leading joiner in Portsmouth, contributed to the design of the house. Rundlet's strength of purpose, his desire-as an outsider to command respect, his strong interest in technical innovation, and his background as a farmer's son influenced both house and landscape designs.
The land surrounding the house was laid out according to traditional precepts and Rundlet's predisposition for organization. Formal terraces, garden beds, and extensive fruit orchards were clearly delineated by fences, a geometric system of paths, and rows of shrubs. Here too Rundlet was probably his own designer.
Rundlet hired the finest local craftsmen to decorate his mansion. His account book lists many purchases from the prominent local cabinetmaker Langley Boardman; among these a set of eight square-back dining chairs, a lolling chair, a serpentine front "Beaureau & handles," and an easy chair remain in the house. They are some of the few documented pieces of New Hampshire-made furniture known. The firm of Jonathan Judkins and William Senter probably manufactured the large bookcase in the southwest parlor and the sideboard.
Rundlet's taste for the best formal Federal furniture is also evidenced by a set of white painted fancy chairs, veneered night stands and bureaus, a rare commode-chest, and a serpentine-top dressing table. The painted and gilded curtain poles in the parlor are believed to have been bought at the estate auction of Captain Samuel Hamm (I 769 -1813), a Portsmouth merchant who went bankrupt because of imprudent speculations and then poisoned himself. The poles bear Hamm's name on the back. A set of red-painted fancy chairs in the bedroom above the sitting room may correspond to a "scarlett" set listed in Hamm's inventory. Three succeeding generations of the Rundlet and May families sparingly added later pieces, but as a whole the furniture in the house composes one of the finest collections in the Federal style associated with a single property.
Rundlet's account books also record the purchase of seven wallpapers through his agents in England. Still on the walls of the parlor are the "peach Damask" and the "Paris Flock Border." Samples of the "Green Nett" and "Green Worm" papers also survive from that purchase, but unfortunately nothing remains of the "Gothic stair case Paper," the 114 yards of "drab and green" fabric, or the carpeting Rundlet bought at the same time.
Through three later generations of descendants., the mansion and its furnishings remained largely unchanged. Rundlet himself added a summer kitchen and well house, and his technological interests led him to install an early central heating system. The landscaping was changed more, particularly in later years when the house was used only in the summers. Additional trees were planted to screen out the traffic on Middle Street, the orchard fell into disuse, and some open areas became overgrown. But the family was conservative and introduced remarkably few permanent changes. Both the original designs for house and grounds and subsequent additions are recorded in detail in the archives of the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities. Photographs document the people who lived there, the changing landscape, and even the succession of beloved pets now in the pet cemetery behind the house.
The property was donated to the Society by Ralph May, the great-grandson of James Rundlet. Some structural work has recently been carried out on the house, and particularly on the carriage-house wing and the arbors. Fortunately, Rundlet's own foresight has spared the Society the burden of a total restoration, for "his house was built large enough and built right, stands unaltered and needing no alterations, having lasted out the lifetime of the owner ... and bidding fair to Outlast other generations ...."
This article originally appeared in Antiques Magazine and is being reprinted here by permission of the SPNEA. To see all the SPNEA houses in New England, visit their web site now.
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