Sometimes the pen is
They almost tore it down. The John Paul Jones House, where the "Chevalier" twice lodged while in New Hampshire, came perilously close to destruction in 1917. The graceful gambrel-roof home, built in 1758 was slated to be torn down and sold off for parts to the Metropolitan Museum by a former Portsmouth bordello owner. This was the final phase of the Colonial revival era (1860-1930) that revived interest in early New England architecture. In its place, the Granite State Fire Company planned to build an office building.
But the public put up a hue and cry. Among the protests was a tiny, but passionate little poem that ran in the local newspaper. We rediscovered it just the other day while researching a history of the Portsmouth Historical Society that occupies the Jones house today. (Click to see actual poem or read below.) Although it isn't exactly Oliver Wendell Holmes, the poetic plea was written under the same urgent inspiration as Holmes tribute to "Old Ironsides" -- the poem that saved the ship from destruction in the early 1800s.
Paul Jones would have been proud. Not only was he a master mariner, military tactician and engineer - but he was a poet who composed in two languages no less. While living at the Purcell boarding house in Portsmouth, NH, now the JPJ House, Jones reportedly penned a few love poems to his current favorites. Using poems like hand grenades to protect the house where he lived a total of 18 months would certainly have made Jones smile. Jones stayed here in `1777 during the equipping of the sloop RANGER and again in 1781 during the outfitting of AMERICA, then the largest warship ever built in the nation.
Whether this poem reprinted below actually moved Woodbury Langdon III, a wealthy preservationist, to purchase the house and save it from destruction we'll probably never know. But he did, and today the attractive house museum and garden are on the National Register of historic landmarks. Thousands of visitors tour annually and the grounds are much as they were just after the American Revolution.
Attached is another early local poem inspired by another poet's 1913 visit to the ancient home, then known as the Lord Mansion for its former owner Samuel Lord. In this sonnet, the poet imagines the soul of John Paul Jones still walking the corridors of his former boarding house. Although the language is stiff and lofty by modern standards, the emotion rings true. Something about the complex and famous John Paul Jones still intrigues people today. Although ignored by the United States government during his lifetime, Jones fame appears undiminished - and it is his fame that has saved this fascinating home from the wrecking ball.
Poem Saves House!
Save for the Nation, and your own,
There is not gold enough to buy
By RJ Gilker
Notes from original newspaper submission (date unknown, approx. 1917): The above poem refers to the old colonial Paul Jones mansion on State Street, this property having recently been purchased by the Granite State Insurance Company. Plans are being made to tear down the historic house as a new business block is to be erected on the lot.
By Benjamin Collins Woodbury
Within these walls, here oft you weary strove.
Written nearby the John Paul Jones House
Portsmouth, July 4, 1913
From "Portsmouth and Other Poems", Press of Geo. H. Ellis Co, Boston, 1923
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