Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Visit History: Portsmouth, New Hampshire

The only past experience I had with New Hampshire was driving through it. I saw the Welcome Center on the side of I-95, maybe a gas station or two and some mountains. Since relocating to New England, the ease of driving through states rather quickly is an enigma to me that I am still getting used to. Anyways, I went to Portsmouth.

There were four stand out "historic" places that I saw in Portsmouth. And by 'saw' I mean I only saw the outside of them. And rather quickly. Hey, it's February in New England. Everything shuts down to hibernate and it's really cold. However, I was inclined to find out more after I got home, so that counts for something.

Governor John Langdon House
John Langdon was a merchant, shipbuilder, American Revolutionary War general, signer of the Constitution and a three term governor of New Hampshire. Built in 1784, his house once hosted George Washington in 1789. It is a Georgian mansion with the inside decorated in the Rococo style. Declared a National Historic Landmark in 1974, it is now operated by Historic New England.

When it is open, visitors can learn about the history of Portsmouth through the life of Langdon, the early colony of New Hampshire, the glory days of the city's mercantile boom and the Colonial Revival movement of the early 20th century through a house tour and various exhibitions.

Strawbery Banke
Strawbery Banke is the oldest neighborhood in New Hampshire to be settled by Europeans and is now a large outdoor history museum. It consists of more than 40 restored buildings (10 being open to the public) built between the 17th and 19th centuries in Colonial, Georgian and Federal style architectures. It was named in the 1630's after the abundance of wild berries growing along the Piscataqua River.

When that is open, visitors can learn the history and lifestyles of families of the houses and how they reflect the social changes of its time period. There are exhibitions on archaeology, woodworking tools and skills and post-and-beam construction. Fireplace cooking demonstrations are offered as well.

North Church
Like many New England towns, a prominent white church steeple rises above all buildings. This congregational church's steeple can be seen from most of the city. The North Church went through many incarnations, the second one being constructed in 1835 while using the same clock, bell and furnishings as its predecessor.

Members had to purchase their own pews and additional pews for their slaves, whose view from the balcony was of the town's whipping post. This church was destroyed as well, to make room for an extensive Victorian style renovation. A new bell and organ followed suit, the bell being used to summon the community's 9 p.m. curfew. Further renovations took place in 1978 and again in 2006.

In 2005 the church was vandalized, resulting in nearly $26,000 worth of damage. Stained glass windows were smashed. Blood on the windows and the outline of a fist suggested that they had been punched through. The case remained unsolved for four years until blood was matched to a 32 year old man from Wiscasset, Maine. A message was allegedly written on the communion table in blood, although I am unable to find any contents of the message. I'm sure it went something like 'blah blah blah, blood of your first born, beast will come to bring damnation, Christ will come to bring salvation, blah blah blah.'

Fort Constitution/Battery Farnsworth
Although not technically in Portsmouth, New Castle Island overlooks both the Piscataqua River and Atlantic Ocean. Fort Constitution was built on the island, one of seven forts built to protect Portsmouth Harbor and the colonists. The forts were of higher importance during the Revolutionary War because of Portsmouth's shipbuilding industry and the establishment of the Naval Shipyard in 1800. Further conflict following the Spanish American War made the fort essential in manning the harbor entrance and led to the establishment of a gun battery (Battery Farnsworth).

Now defunct, the fort was returned to the state in 1961 and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.