The current South Ward Meeting House is the second building that has occupied this site. In 1731, John Pickering, the son of the original John Pickering, donated the land on top of Meetinghouse Hill for the establishment of a new South Church. The previous South Church, located near John Pickering’s South Mill Bridge at the triangle of roads leading to New Castle and South Street, was under disrepair and needed to be replaced.
Parishioners cleared the trees atop Meetinghouse Hill and used the lumber to build what is now remembered as the Old South Church. The building served as the South Parish’s meetinghouse from 1731 until 1824. Ministers included William Shurtleff from 1731-1747, Job Strong from 1748-1751, Dr. Samuel Haven from 1752-1806, Timothy Alden (assisting Rev. Haven) from 1798-1805, and Dr. Nathan Parker from 1808-1826.
The congregation moved to the new Stone Church, also known as the South Church, on State Street in 1826.
After 1826, the town used the old meetinghouse on Meetinghouse Hill for various purposes until it was razed in 1863.
Portsmouth built the current South Meeting House in 1866. The first floor was originally used as a school and the second as ward room for public functions.
The Freewill Baptists, the first African-American church in Portsmouth, worshiped on the second floor starting in 1873 and celebrated Emancipation Day here annually starting in 1882. Another African-American denomination that became the People’s Baptist Church began meeting here in 1890. This congregation moved to the building on Pearl Street, known as The Pearl, in 1915.
Portsmouth replaced the tower clock in 1901. I believe the eagle weathervane and slate roof are the originals from 1866.
The black-and-white photographs below are from the U. S. Library of Congress. Jack E. Boucher photographed them in 1961 for an Historic American Buildings Survey by the National Park Service. The pictures show its dilapidated condition at the time.
The South Meeting House was used as a schoolhouse until around 1915, and the local military draft for WWI and WWII were held here. The Disabled American Veterans rented the space from 1960-1962. To prevent the building’s destruction by urban renewal, Strawbery Banke Museum took over the lease in 1963 and signed a 50-year lease in 1966.
The Children’s Museum of Portsmouth rented the building from 1982 until 2008. The current tenant is Portsmouth Public Media, a nonprofit organization that has its offices and production studio in the historic building and hosts Portsmouth’s first public access cable television station, PPMTV.
The South Meeting House is on the National Registry of Historic Places.