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.

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