Thursday, June 26, 2014

Webster House

The Webster House, also known as the Benjamin F. Webster House and Buckminster Chapel, is located at 84 Broad Street. The mansion sits on the northwest corner of Broad and Highland Streets facing east.

Situated a very walkable three-quarters of a mile from Market Square, on the top of what once was known as Rundlet’s Mountain, the Webster House is as large and impressive as the Frank Jones House on Woodbury Avenue. Benjamin Franklin Webster began the construction of his immaculate home beginning in 1878, and the Webster family moved in around 1881. 

Benjamin F. Webster was a wealthy building contractor who once had vast real estate holdings. Born in Epsom, New Hampshire, he received a basic education and moved to Portsmouth in 1841. Webster was seventeen years old when he began his remarkable career as a lowly apprentice carpenter. He married Sarah A. Senter in 1849, and built their first home, a small cottage on Austin Street, two years later. While living there, they had a son, Merit Victor Webster in 1851, and a daughter, Stella in 1854.

The Websters moved into the old Oracle House in 1855. Now located at 38 Marcy Street, at that time the historic building sat in Haymarket Square at 2 Court Street. The small family resided in the Oracle House for twenty-six years, until 1881, when they moved to the newly-completed Webster House. 

Benjamin Franklin Webster was a leading member of St. John’s Masonic Lodge and the Mechanics Fire Society, as well as a proprietor of the Portsmouth Athenaeum. His contributions to the city include the renovation of three local churches and construction of numerous houses, the Cabot Street School, the Kearsarge House, and the old Congress Block after fire destroyed the original.

Webster had real estate holdings in Rye and Newington. In Portsmouth, he owned property on Atkinson Street, Austin Street, Broad Street, Cabot Street, Charles Street, Coffins Avenue, Congress Block, Court Street, Green Street, Hanover Street, Highland Street, Jefferson Street, Lincoln Avenue, Manning Street, McDonough Street, Middle Road, Middle Street, Pleasant Street, Richards Avenue, Rockland Street, Sheafe Street, and State Street.

He lost his wife, Sarah, in 1913, and died three years later at the age of ninety-one, after a long and successful life. His funeral was held in the Webster House, and he was buried in the South Cemetery

At the time of his death, his family included four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. His daughter, Stella, never married, and continued to live in their magnificent home until she died, age 97, in 1951. 

A vintage photograph of the Benjamin Franklin Webster House, taken in the late 1800s and posted on the Portsmouth Athenaeum website, shows what the house looked like when the Webster family lived there. It hasn't changed much in the ensuing years.

The mansion has been lovingly preserved by its current owner, the J. Verne Wood Funeral Home. Mr. Wood established a downtown Portsmouth undertaking business in 1854. He named his funeral home 'Buckminster Chapel' because it was located in the old Buckminster House on Islington Street. During the 1940s, J. Verne Wood was succeeded as funeral director by his cousin, George Bradford Ward. In the early 1950s, Mr. Ward jumped at the chance to buy the Webster House, and the Buckminster Chapel and J. Verne Wood Funeral Home relocated to this magnificent mansion.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Kearsarge House

The Kearsarge House, sometimes called the Kearsarge Hotel or Kearsarge House Hotel, is located at 104 Congress Street, on the southwest corner of Congress and Chestnut Streets.

Master builder and ship’s joiner Benjamin Franklin Webster, who also constructed the Cabot Street School and the Webster House on Broad Street, built the Kearsarge House as a two-family home in 1866. Almost as soon as it opened, however, it became a hotel with street-level shops. 

Colonel Joshua Winslow Peirce, the original owner, was the son of John Peirce and spent his childhood at the Peirce Mansion on Court Street at Haymarket Square. Colonel Peirce was a prominent Portsmouth merchant and expert farmer who served as an officer of the 1st New Hampshire Regiment from 1816 to 1823. He joined the Federal Fire Society in 1818 and served until his death in 1874.

Towards the end of his life, Colonel Peirce moved from his beloved farm on the south shore of Great Bay and resided in a townhouse on Congress Street, close to the hotel he’d renamed 'Kearsarge' in 1879 to honor a famous warship. The USS Kearsarge was a Civil War sloop-of-war powered by steam and by sail built at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard and launched in 1861.

On June 19, 1864, at the Battle of Cherbourg off the coast of France, the Kearsarge sank the Confederate warship CSS Alabama. This victory was one of the most significant naval engagements of the Civil War, and the name ‘Kearsarge’ proudly appears on the Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Portsmouth's Goodwin Park on Islington Street. There have been four U.S. warships named Kearsarge; the first was named for Mount Kearsarge in Wilmot and Warner, New Hampshire. 

The three that followed were all named for the original, legendary, Portsmouth-built USS Kearsarge.

On December 24, 1876, a popular lecture and exhibition hall on Chestnut Street known as The Temple was destroyed by a fire that slightly damaged the nearby Kearsarge House. A year later, Colonel Pierce's family opened the Music Hall where the Temple once stood.

The Kearsarge House itself caught fire on January 1, 1951 or 1956 (reports are conflicting). The two-alarm blaze originated in the hotel’s dining room, the Blue Goose Restaurant. As a precaution, nearly seven hundred people were evacuated from the adjacent Music Hall, which at that time was a movie theater called The Civic. Skilled efforts by firemen limited the damage and saved both historic structures. 

Another fire, on September 5, 1961, started in a fourth-floor storeroom and destroyed the building’s top floor. A Portsmouth fireman was hospitalized briefly for smoke inhalation due to this smoky blaze.

I have been unable to locate a copyright-free, vintage photograph to include here. I have found two Portsmouth Athenaeum links, however, that prove the beautifully restored Kearsarge House still looks very similar to the way it did in the late 1800s and 1908

Today, it is home to Alex and Ani (+) Energy and Runner’s Alley.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Walk London

I recently returned to the quiet streets of Portsmouth after spending ten days walking the bustling boulevards of London. As you would expect, there are striking differences between here and there. Steering wheels are on the right side of the cars instead of the left, and vehicles drive on the left instead of the right. Normally, slower traffic keeps left for faster vehicles to pass on the right. Contrary to the roads, however, when you're riding an escalator, you're expected to stand on the right to allow people to pass you on the left. Odd.

Hazards for international travelers are everywhere.

Painted signs on the pavement at busy intersections remind pedestrians to "Look right" or "Look left" before crossing. 
You have to watch for cars taking a "left turn on red after stop", and be wary of yellow lights, which usually indicate that a red traffic signal is about to turn green, rather than a green light to red.

In London, horses and riders, and an occasional carriage, are common sights. Sadly, you rarely see equestrians in Portsmouth any more.

A major difference between the two cities is the age and size of the buildings. The oldest surviving building in Portsmouth is the Jackson House at 76 Northwest Street, built around 1664. The second oldest extant house is the 1680 Dennett House on Prospect Street. These are relative newcomers compared to the Tower of London's White Tower, constructed more than 900 years ago, around 1078. 

Tower of London and the 1078 White Tower
Construction of Southwark Cathedral, on the south side of the Thames, began in the early 1200s; and on the north side, Westminster Abbey opened in 1245. King Henry VIII's Hampton Court Palace dates from the early 1500s, Kensington Palace will celebrate its 410th birthday in 2015, and the Banqueting House in Westminster, where King Charles I was beheaded in 1649, was constructed in 1619.

Southwark Cathedral, circa 1220
Westminster Abbey, 1245

Hampton Court Palace, early 1500s 

Kensington Palace, 1605

Banqueting House, 1619

Some of the 'old' buildings in London were actually built centuries after the time periods they are meant to represent. For example, the Gothic-style Westminster Palace, where Parliament meets, was completed in 1870. Tower Bridge, a relatively modern achievement that opened in 1894, was intentionally built in a Victorian-Gothic style to complement the ancient Tower of London, which stands near the bridge's northern end.

Parliament opened as Westminster Palace in 1840

Tower Bridge, 1894