Thursday, February 21, 2013

First Sunday-School

The so-called First Sunday-School in Portsmouth was once located on the east side of Washington Street, between Hancock and Court Streets, where the Strawbery Banke Museum’s Walsh House stands today.

The story of the small home that once stood on this spot began with the Great Portsmouth Fire of 1813. When the smoke cleared on the following morning, all that remained of the NH Union Bank, which stood on the southeast corner of Pleasant and State Streets, was its vault, standing defiantly among the ashes. 

In 1814, the Union Bank built this structure, which at that time was a single story, to enclose their safe and to serve as a temporary bank.

Four years later, when the bank had no more need of the little building, Joseph Haven purchased it for the South Parish. It served as the church's Sunday-School starting in June, 1818. The following year, it was moved to Wentworth Street, not far from the Livermore Street home of Reverend Nathan Parker, spiritual leader of the South Parish. In 1828, the Pleasant Street Congregational Society purchased the building and relocated it to Livermore Street, where the Livermore House stands today. It was used as a vestry for their church – now an apartment house – on the southwest corner of Pleasant and Livermore Streets.

The little house that could took one last journey when, in 1884, a new owner moved it to Washington Street. He added a half-story to the structure and converted it to a two-family rental property. 

At the time, the Walsh House stood about 80 feet farther south (on the right in this photograph), and the First Sunday-School sat between it and the Penhallow House. After urban renewal ended the building's travels in 1963, Strawbery Banke moved the Walsh House to its present location.

By the way, I call this the First Sunday-School because that is the name it was given by C. S. Gurney in his 1902 book, Portsmouth . . . Historic and Picturesque. It was first used as a Sunday-School in June, 1818, although even he admits that “This, however, was not strictly speaking the first Sabbath-school in Portsmouth.” That honor, apparently, goes to a religious school for African-American children that was held in a room of a private home. The First Sunday-School was probably the first building in Portsmouth to serve in this capacity.

Gurney did not include a photograph of the building in his book, so these black-and-white pictures are from the National Park Service’s Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), created in 1961.

As you can see from my photograph of this scene, almost three feet of snow in the last two weeks is hampering my Walk Portsmouth excursions! The yellow house in my picture is the Walsh House, which was moved to this location in 1969. The next house north (left background) in both photos is the Penhallow House.

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