The Old Neighborhood

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The days leading up to Christmas in the old New Hampshire coastal town of Portsmouth have a refreshing quality, even an astringent one at times. And on a weekend’s visit you won’t be forced back into a specific—and sentimentalized—era. At the annual Candlelight Stroll hosted by Strawbery Banke, Portsmouth’s thriving restoration, three hundred years tend to bump up against one another. This is by design, as the curators work to demonstrate the varying ways in which New Englanders of many centuries experienced Christmas.

 

The holiday we now tend to envelop in song and glitter and an abundance of gifts dates back no farther than the mid-nineteenth century. The Puritans (later called Congregationalists) actively disapproved of Christmas, or at best ignored it. Several of the earliest houses at Strawbery Banke show that their inhabitants saw December 25 as simply a day for business as usual, as a gathering of quotations found at the 1780s Wheelwright House makes clear. “Happened to think that this day is Christmas,” a teacher wrote in his diary in 1828, “but seeing none of my scholars take note of it, I thought if I did, I should appear rather odd, & so I let it pass.”

Strawbery Banke is the name the first English settlers gave this place in 1630, honoring its lush and fruitful setting along the Piscataqua River (the town took its present name in 1653). The restoration’s ten acres overlooking the waterfront occupy this oldest section, with forty-two buildings (most built between 1695 to 1810) clustered around Puddle Dock, now a central green but until well into this century an inlet of the river that bristled with wharves and storehouses. About a dozen houses remain open for special winter events; some contain period furnishings, while others function as galleries and crafts shops.

The events, held two weekends in December, begin on Friday afternoons and end each evening at nine. As night falls, the grounds are lit by flickering candles encased in eleven hundred glass lanterns set along dirt paths. Bonfires flare on Puddle Dock common, and visitors tour the grounds in horse-drawn carriages or scurry from the cold night air into the welcome of ancient houses still warm with the lives of their first owners. Some of these early inhabitants were extremely rich merchants and lawyers; others were artisans and laborers. All lived in egalitarian proximity. Now, a century or two later, the gentle notes of a dulcimer drift from the window of the pre-Revolutionary Pitt Tavern and then are momentarily lost when a helmeted air-raid warden shouts, “Lights out! Don’t you people know there’s a blackout?” At that moment, over the rooftops of Strawbery Banke, 1800 and 1942 meet.

Today’s meticulous restoration was a long time building. It is celebrated now as a triumph of the nascent preservation movement of the 1950s, but at first it had to endure all the perils and near disasters of any pioneer effort. The city that had grown around Strawbery Banke had risen and fallen on the business of shipbuilding. Before the Revolution more ships of the Continental navy came from here than from any other seaport. John Paul Jones’s Ranger sailed from Portsmouth Harbor in 1777 bearing the first American flag flown at sea. The town’s prosperity was accompanied by all the accouterments of wealth: fine houses, an influx of produce and riches from every part of the world, and an amazing array of cultural advantages—theater, opera, and singing and dancing lessons. Winter, especially, was Portsmouth’s high season.

When the day of the clipper ship ended and the railroad took hold, Portsmouth looked at hard times. In 1869 the town’s best-known native author, Thomas Bailey Aldrich, wrote of the derelict waterfront: “The phantom fleet sailed off one day, and never came back again. The crazy old warehouses are empty; and barnacles and eel-grass cling to the piles of the crumbling wharves, where the sunshine lies lovingly, bringing out the faint spicy odor that haunts the place—the ghost of the old dead West India trade.”

 

Here, as elsewhere, the first stirrings of the late nineteenth century’s colonial-revival movement owed much to the established population’s fear of an influx of foreigners. The houses and implements of the first settlers, the reasoning went, could be used as a moral lesson for the newest ones. In 1940 the New Hampshire WPA Guide worried about formerly great houses “in the impoverished section of the city, occupied by the immigrant groups, unaware, of course, that their dilapidated quarters are prized by antiquarians.”

Photos from the 1950s show much of the Puddle Dock area in a state of extreme disrepair, although a sturdy working-class population still had roots there and jobs too, provided by the two-hundred-year-old Portsmouth Navy Yard just down the street. Urban renewal’s deep thinkers proposed tearing down the whole neighborhood and re-creating what had once been, since laws at the time peculiarly required that all buildings in a renewal area be razed. More sensible heads prevailed, as they were beginning to elsewhere in the country, and finally, in 1958, after remaining residents had been relocated and some anomalistic houses removed or destroyed, Strawbery Banke came into being as an outdoor museum, opening for business in 1965.