Preservation Along the Piscataqua

30 Jul
Portsmouth's Market Square with the knockout North Church. Photo by author

Portsmouth’s Market Square with the knockout North Church. Photo by author

Last weekend in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, I spent some fun down time with family and got an eyeful of American architectural history.  Portsmouth got an adoring travel write-up in the Chicago Tribune back in June, and for good reason. Once among the most prosperous seaports in North America, Portsmouth today has done a great job of translating its cache of intact 17th, 18th, and 19th century architecture into big tourist dollars, a very welcome income stream since the slowdown of the local shipbuilding industry and the closure of nearby Pease Air Force Base.

Portsmouth's Wentworth-Gardner House narrowly missed a disastrous dismantling by curators of the Met in the late 1910s. Photo by author

Portsmouth’s Wentworth-Gardner House narrowly missed a disastrous dismantling by curators of the Met in the late 1910s. Photo by author

The Wentworth-Gardner House is still open to the public and showing off its incredible 1760 hand-carved front door surround to passersby walking along waterfront Mechanic Street.  Wallace Nutting, the great circus barker of the early twentieth century Colonial Revival (and subject of an earlier post), once owned the Wentworth-Gardner and caused a stink among New England’s burgeoning preservation movement when he sold the house in 1918 to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.  The Met planned to dismantle the whole house and rebuild it in its new American Wing, but in the end the task of moving an entire mansion to New York proved too difficult. The museum ultimately did get something out of their bungled deal: Met curators crated up original examples of the Wentworth-Gardner’s furniture and wall paneling for display in their galleries.

William Sumner Appleton_credit Historic New England

William Sumner Appleton was one of the unstoppable forces of nature who demanded Americans face up to the destruction of our architectural heritage. All that and a nice dresser to boot. Photo credit: Historic New England

The Wentworth-Gardner was later operated as a house museum by SPNEA, the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, one of the first and longest-lasting preservation advocacy groups in American history (it’s still active today under the moniker of Historic New England).  Manning SPNEA’s helm for dozens of its early twentieth century preservation fights was the organization’s founder, the formidable William Sumner Appleton (1874-1947) who brought influential social and financial connections and unrelenting persistence to campaigns for some of New England’s most important endangered early structures.

Appleton’s SPNEA helped protect two other great old Portsmouth houses.  One is the Governor Langdon House, home to prominent Portsmouth shipbuilder, state governor, and signer of the U.S. Constitution John Langdon (1741-1819).

Portsmouth's Governor Langdon House (1784). Photo by author

Portsmouth’s Governor Langdon House (1784). Photo by author

The Langdon House is a big Georgian pile befitting the station of one of Portsmouth’s wealthiest sons.  Around back is a later addition by the influential New York architectural firm of McKim, Mead, & White, a pretty demure composition that blends in well with the original house – on the outside at least.

McKim Mead & White's 1907 addition to the much earlier Governor Langdon House (at right). Photo by author

McKim Mead & White’s 1907 addition to the much earlier Governor Langdon House (at right). Photo by author

Inside the addition, however, architect Stanford White dropped any pretense of reserve with a spectacular display of high style Georgian Revival in his design of the first floor’s octagonal dining room.  The house has been operated by SPNEA (Historic New England) since the mid-1950s.

William Sumner Appleton had a personal hand in the acquisition and restoration of the Jackson House, a settlement-era house on Portsmouth’s North Side first constructed around 1664.

Portsmouth's Jackson House, built c. 1664. Photo by author

Portsmouth’s Jackson House, built c. 1664. Photo by author

Seven generations of the Jackson family called this timber frame structure home until the family sold the home in 1924 to Appleton who fended off efforts to “restore” the house by removing its eighteenth- and nineteenth-century additions.

Appleton saw the importance of retaining the later additions not just because they made for a more picturesque house (which was pretty important for contemporary Colonial Revivalists like Wallace Nutting).  Appleton believed the Jackson House’s significance lay not only in its connection to New England’s earliest settlement but also in its expression of the story of the entire Jackson family over time.  Early colonial history was important to Appleton but so was recent history and though it made for a more complicated interpretation of the house for visitors with their guide books, so the better Appleton believed for visitors to experience their region’s historical  complexity.

The original Jackson House building with 18th century and 19th century additions (at right and left) that William Sumner Appleton insisted remain intact. Photo by author

The original Jackson House is at center. During his restoration of the house, William Sumner Appleton insisted that the 18th century and 19th century additions at right and left remain intact. Photo by author

With no universally-accepted preservation principles to look to, Appleton invented his own, anticipating the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties by fifty years. He adopted a curatorial stance that retained later work, allowing the Jackson House to tell the story of all of its past residents, not just earliest ones. In a controversial move, Appleton retained the later additions and made only targeted interventions within the building including removing non-historic lath-and-plaster finishes and inserting diamond-paned casement windows where evidence showed they existed in the late 1600s.  In a fervor for “authenticity,” curators in the 1960s went against Appleton’s “leave-in-place” principle and removed the house’s later fireplaces (and any remaining evidence of the originals), replacing them with new reproduction hearths typical of the 1660s.  Other than these changes, the Jackson House stands essentially as the same house Appleton purchased in 1924, the same house the Jackson family called home for 250 years.


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