John Hart (1733-1790) a ropemaker in pre-Revolutionary Portsmouth, New Hampshire, built a house in the city’s North End where he and his family resided. He died in 1790, and apparently willed the home to his housekeeper as he must not have had children. Early in the 19th century, the home underwent a huge overhaul, with a third floor added to the two-story Georgian home and the facade altered in the Federal style, all to resemble a traditional merchant “mansion house”. In the 1830s, the Greek Revival portico (porch) was added to the entry, to really make this house a blending of styles! In the 20th century, the Hart House was converted to a nursing home. In the 1960s, urban renewal plans were unveiled which would raze this home and hundreds of others. Luckily, this and just over a dozen more, were moved and saved from the wrecking ball.
This house in the Hill District of Portsmouth, NH was built sometime between 1766 and 1770; however a sign posted on the house indicates an earlier date of 1725. Regardless, the house is one of the best-preserved Georgian homes in the city. The colonial-era home was apparently built for a Henry Sherburne, who was a member of some of New Hampshire’s leading families. By the 1900s, the property was the only in the city with a surviving scrolled pediment doorway from the period. Like other colonial homes in the old North End of Portsmouth, it was barely saved by the bulldozers and urban renewal when it was moved in 1972 to its present site.
The Whidden-Ward House in The Hill section of downtown Portsmouth, New Hampshire, is an excellent example of a wood-frame Georgian-style residence in the coastal city. The house was built in the early 1720s by joiner, Michael Whidden Jr. As a third generation joiner, Whidden built several houses in the Portsmouth area, this one for his own residence. The house was purchased in the 1770s by Nathum Ward, who “modernized” the house with the triangular pediments over the windows. The house was moved over a block to its present site in the early 1970s as much of the surrounding neighborhood was demolished during Urban Renewal.
Built sometime between 1749 and 1756, the Hart-Rice House, a little-altered example of Georgian architecture, stands out in the densely packed Hill section of Portsmouth, NH. The area contains amazing early homes, largely moved to their sites from nearby, saving them from the wrecking-ball of Urban Renewal in the 1970s. The house demonstrates the high-quality craftsmanship of its owner, ship-joiner Samuel Hart (1701-1766), who likely built the home himself. Decades later, William Rice, a sea-captain, purchased the home. Rice was a known privateer during the War of 1812, causing a lot of trouble for British ships off the shores.
Continuing with my mini-series on The Hill, a neighborhood of 18th and 19th century houses and buildings saved from Urban Renewal in Portsmouth’s North End neighborhood, I present the James Neal House. Built in 1831 and taxed a year later, the house stands out as a late Federal style property, a style that was well on its way out in popularity. Additionally, the home is the only extant brick house in this area of town from the period. James Neal was listed in directories as a merchant, possibly being involved in the shipping of goods from plantations in the Caribbean, which were farmed by enslaved Africans. James died just a few years after his home was built. The brick house is three-stories with a hipped roof. The entry is surmounted by a semi-circular fanlight set within a recessed opening, a modest take on the Federal style.
One of the oldest homes remaining on The Hill in Portsmouth, New Hampshire is this Federal-era house which survived the period of Urban Renewal in the city’s North End. The house was built for Simeon P. Smith in 1810 a few years after his marriage to Anna C. Dudley. Simeon worked as a cooper, which made wooden casks, barrels and other containers from timber staves that were usually heated or steamed to make them pliable. The home is a great example of a preserved working-class house built in early 19th century Portsmouth, a house that would only be affordable to the rich today. The house, like many others on The Hill, was moved to this location from nearby and houses offices today.
In 1964, federal funds were allocated to the North End project area in Portsmouth, for urban renewal. Prior to redevelopment, the North End was a mix of residential and commercial buildings, with many older houses converted into storefronts with apartments above. In the mid-1960s, the area was considered overcrowded, run down, and a fire hazard. As a result, the Portsmouth Housing Authority proposed the destruction of approximately 200 buildings, a school, and a church and redevelopment for commercial, industrial, and public use, rather than for residences. The project would displace approximately 300 families as a result. In 1968, Portsmouth Preservation Inc., a preservation organization was formed to attempt to save some of the historic building stock in the area slated for redevelopment. After bitter fighting and preservation advocacy, just fourteen houses were saved and mostly moved to an area known today as “The Hill”. This building is one of them. It was constructed around 1725 for Rev. Jabez Fitch, the new minister of the North Church in town. Fitch graduated from Harvard College in 1694 first settling in Ipswich, MA, before becoming minister of the North Church in 1724, a position he held until his death in 1746. The house was one of the few in the urban renewal area to not have been moved.
Located off the coast of the Portsmouth Harbor, the Whaleback Lighthouse actually is located within the boundary of Kittery, Maine. The light seen today is actually the second Whaleback beacon that was located on the rocky island off the coast. The first was built in 1829 and was so poorly built, keepers often wondered during storms if the entire building would collapse into the sea. The reason for its poor construction was that when the new construction went out for bid by the Federal Government, the contractors under-bid all other interested (and more qualified) contractors. By law, Congress was forced to accept the lowest bid with no regard to the bidder’s qualifications or competence, and somehow, the structure survived intact for over forty years.
Due to mounting concerns for the former lighthouse to fall into the sea at any moment, a new lighthouse tower was finally erected in 1872 for $75,000. The new 50-foot tower, 27 feet in diameter at its base, was constructed of granite blocks. General James Chatham Duane, an engineer, was involved with the design. The granite came from Biddeford, Maine. In 1878, a metal structure was built on the side of the tower to house a fog signal which ran on coal power. During the winter of 1888 (a very poor weather season), the fog signal was in operation for about 974 hours, consuming 16,895 pounds of coal. The fog signal structure was painted red by the light keeper assistant regularly.
In June 2007, Whaleback Lighthouse, deemed excess by the Coast Guard, was offered at no cost to eligible entities and was awarded to the American Lighthouse Foundation (ALF) in November 2008. Friends of Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse, a chapter of ALF, manages Whaleback Lighthouse and raised funds for its restoration.