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The Many Faces of Portsmouth, New Hampshire

© By Mary Ann Simpkins
  Following a bordello owner around Portsmouth, New Hampshire at twilight was not what we'd expected after signing up for a city tour, but there was one advantage: we couldn't lose sight of her with her large hat trimmed in black chiffon, black fingerless gloves and floor-length lace-top dress. Aptly nicknamed "Black Mystery of Water Street," she would stand out in any crowd.
     Before you question our choice of tour, let me quickly mention that the guide was a local historian portraying a real person, Mrs. Alta Roberts. "From 1895 to 1913, Portsmouth had the finest brothels on the east coast," brags the Madame. The brothels close to the docks not only catered to the sailors - the town was a major port and shipbuilding center - but also to millionaires traveling to summer homes in Maine.
     Church ministers attempted to close down the brothels, but nothing happened until two spinster sisters finally persuaded the state's governor to act. He called in the militia and ordered the soldiers to pick up all the women and place them on any train leaving town. A seaside park dedicated to the Prescott sisters replaced the brothels and saloons destroyed in the clean-up campaign. Mrs. Roberts' house, one of three brothels still standing, became a legal boarding house.
     After World War II, the former red-light district was slated for urban renewal, but the historically-minded persuaded the city to preserve much of it. The 10-acre Strawbery Banke, Portsmouth's original name, conveys the city's history through its architecture. The 40 mainly wood frame buildings have been restored to represent periods from 1630 to 1958.
     You could spend the entire day going through such houses as the 1695 Shelbourne House. Enlarged in 1739 by a Supreme Court judge, the elegant three-story house is the earliest known example of a house with rooms built behind a central chimney. But one room is missing. The Metropolitan Museum of Art moved it to Henry Francis DuPont's Winterthur Museum.
     Exposed walls in some houses reveal examples of construction methods employed over the years. In others, costumed interpreters acting as residents welcome you to their home. A servant greeted us at the Walsh house, a 1796 "faux" home. The wood stairs and fireplace were painted to resemble marble, the pine doors to resemble mahogany. Upstairs, Captain Keyran Walsh, dressed in a flared-sleeve white shirt and cream-colored trousers tight at the knee, typical of an early 19th century sea captain, pointed out his small counting room.
     "I'm a captain working for Real Carlos (King Carlos of Spain). I trade hemp, coffee and indigo for raw sugar and molasses in Martinque and for wine in Nantes, France."
     A few steps away, a man plays solitaire in the kitchen of a house built in 1720 but modernized to 1943. He gets up when we enter, "You probably want to use the phone," he says. "It's the only one in the neighbourhood." He leads us into the adjacent small grocery. Ration books sit beside the telephone. Canned goods line the shelves. A sign notes that in 1943, a grocery had about 400 items in the shop versus 20,000 today.

       

     The Thomas Aldrich house allows visits only at set times. You can wait in the garden, the most attractive of the many period gardens. Aldrich was the editor of the Atlantic Monthly and author of 1869, "The Story of a Bad Boy," a revolutionary work in American literature. Previously, fiction depicted children as nauseatingly good. His widow and friends opened the house as a memorial to him in 1908, a year after his death. Dark brown wallpaper in the formal parlor and dark furnishings cast a gloom over the Colonial Renewal-style house.
     In his novel, Aldrich described the boy's bedroom as resembling a ship's cabin. The description obviously coming from his bedroom, a tiny chamber sandwiched between two large corner bedrooms.
     Portsmouth has many other historic houses separate from Strawbery Banke. At the John Paul Jones' house, a few blocks away, costumed guides lead tours complete with a capsule history of the civil war naval hero. The Scottish-born sailor actually just boarded here, but his 18 months residence was the longest he'd ever spent in one home. The elegant gambled-roof mansion was built by a sea captain in 1758 to impress his socialite bride. But his early death forced the widow to take in borders.
     Besides a mannequin wearing Jones' naval outfit, the many images in the house include a bust, one of nine copies he ordered as gifts for friends. The original by French sculptor, Jean-Antoine Houdon, is in the Louvre. The Father of the American Navy died in Paris poor and forgotten.

Mary Ann Simpkins is a frequent contributor to the Montreal Gazette, Ottawa Citizen, Spa Life, North American Inns, and also Fifty-Five Plus, Grit, Rolls Royce Diary & Fodor's Travel Guides. She is author of Travel Bug Canada & Co-author of Ottawa Stories. Mary Ann is a member of TMAC & SATW.

Photo Credits
Courtesy: Strawbery Banke Museum

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Greater Portsmouth Chamber of Commerce: http://www.portsmouthchamber.org
Strawbery Banke Museum: http://www.strawberybanke.org
John Paul Jones House: www.portsmouthhistory.org/jpjhouse.html
Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Portsmouth,_New_Hampshire
Wikitravel: http://wikitravel.org/en/Portsmouth_(New_Hampshire)

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