Thursday, October 16, 2014

Rundlet-May House

The Rundlet-May House, sometimes spelled ‘Rundlett-May House’, is located at 364 Middle Street, on the north side between Summer and Cabot Streets.

James Rundlet built his new home in 1807, to house his wife, Jane Hill Rundlet, and their seven children. While living here, the fruitful family welcomed six more offspring. 

Originally from Exeter, Rundlet came to Portsmouth in 1794 to make his fortune, and soon succeeded as a textile merchant with a store on Market Street. The War of 1812 years were extremely profitable for him and included a commission from the United States government to supply woolen cloth for soldiers’ uniforms.

Towards the end of the war, he invested in a woolen mill in Amesbury, Massachusetts, and another mill, in 1823, on the Salmon Falls River in Rollinsford. Later in life, he used his accumulated profits to invest in real estate and rental properties around Portsmouth.

James Rundlet was a forward-thinking man who incorporated leading-edge technology in his home. He equipped his kitchen with a revolutionary Rumford range and roaster, precursor of the modern kitchen range, that was invented by Count Rumford during the 1790s. By the 1830s, he'd installed an early, coal-fired, forced hot-air heating system, and his house was one of the few private residences supplied with water by the Portsmouth aqueduct system.

The Rundlet family’s extensive holdings, which surrounded their elaborate house, included pastureland and property that extended south to Rundlet Mountain, where the J. Verne Wood Funeral Home stands today. From 1815 until his death in 1852, James Rundlet was the tenth highest taxpayer in Portsmouth.

Upon his death, two of his unwed children inherited the Rundlet Homestead, Caroline and Edward. Another daughter, Louisa Catherine Rundlet May, joined them in the family home with her two children, twins James and Jane, after the untimely death of Louisa’s husband, George May, in 1858.

The house next passed to Louisa’s son, James Rundlet May following the deaths of his Harvard-educated uncle, Doctor Edward Rundlet, in 1874, and his Aunt Caroline in 1880. James, who also became a doctor and practiced medicine in Portsmouth, and his wife, Mary Ann Morrison May, had one child, a son named Ralph May. Ralph became the fourth generation and last family member to own the home. Upon his death in the early 1970s, Ralph deeded the Rundlet-May House to the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, now known as Historic New England.

Unfortunately, C. S. Gurney did not include a photograph of the Rundlet-May House when he published, Portsmouth . . . Historic and Picturesque, in 1902. For a comparison shot, I found this 1940 picture on the Portsmouth Athenaeum Website: Façade of Rundlet May House.

Visiting this interesting showpiece of Portsmouth history, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, can prove difficult. For some reason, Historic New England only opens the Rundlet-May House to the public for a dozen or fewer days each year, recently on the first and third Saturdays from June 1 through October 15.

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