Published: September 26, 2000
PORTSMOUTH, N.H. – The Stawbery Banke Museum might present the only house museum in America that features a year 2000 restoration of a 1797 home to depict its appearance in 1850, as perceived by Colonial Revival Movement.
The 1797 residence was built by William Stavers and later acquired by Thomas D. Bailey. From 1849 to 1852, Bailey’s grandson, Thomas Bailey Aldrich spent his teen years living in the home. Aldrich moved to New York, and began a writing career in 1855. Upon his death five decades later, Aldrich’s widow and friends planned a museum that recognized his career. On June 30, 1908 they opened this house as the Thomas Bailey Aldrich Memorial (a period term for museum), Portsmouth’s first museum.
Aldrich’s formative years in Portsmouth profoundly impacted American literature. Writing serial installments for a magazine, he penned a novelette entitled The Story of a Bad Boy. The then-revolutionary work was a huge success, and it remains in print today. That book also inspired a friend and fellow writer to create an account of teen life entitled The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. In addition to Mark Twain, Aldrich’s circle of friends included Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, and William Dean Howells. He was the editor of Atlantic Monthly magazine from 1881 to 1890. As an adult, Aldrich had homes in Boston and Milton, Mass.
The Thomas Bailey Aldrich Memorial was conceived as a two-building facility. The Bailey house was intended to present the 1850 setting in which young Tom Aldrich lived. To accurately present the furnishings and accessories, founders asked Aldrich family members to donate objects that they owned and which they believed were from the home. A second building was constructed on the property to display memorabilia associated with Aldrich’s career and life.
The 1908 restoration of the home was guided by recollections of the home by the founders and neighbors. However, the founders were also swept by the influence of the Colonial Revival Movement. For example, in the kitchen they exposed the large original fireplace and featured hearth implements from an earlier period.
In designing the year 2000 restoration, Strawbery Banke officials chose to preserve the 1908 conceptualization of an 1850s home. On the one hand, this departs from the modern concept of a period restoration. On the other hand, it captures a unique window into the Colonial Revival view of restoration. They saw that window as a unique feature that was important to save. Working with photographs, postcards, prints, and written accounts, curators and restoration experts have attempted to present the house exactly as it was when the museum opened in 1908. They researched Aldrich’s archives at Harvard University.
After a person has read The Story of a Bad Boy, a visit to the house underscores the autobiographical quality of the story. Tom’s room is precisely as described in the book. The second floor window that he climbed out to land on Court Street for nighttime escapades is precisely as described.
The restoration project has addressed three types of situations. Water intrusions into the building initiated the decay and damage of some building components. It was also necessary to determine changes introduced by the well-intended staff of the Thomas Bailey Aldrich Memorial such as paint color changes made since the 1908 restoration. Strawbery Banke restorers reversed those changes. A general accumulation of smoke, grime and dust had to be removed from the surfaces of furnishings and accessories.
Associate curator Carolyn Roy explained the process. “The first set of issues that needed to be addressed were structural. Everything in the house had to be moved out, and the house was turned over to the crew doing structural work. There were specific localized problems that needed to be addressed, and then there were also more global issues such as environmental control.”
She then continued, “One of the largest of the localized problems began with the architectural return from the roofline at the southeast corner of the building. A properly built return has a slight outward slope that sheds water. However, on that return the slant was toward the building rather than away from it. A shallow pool of water accumulated on return against the sheathing on the house. Decay progressed and water began leaking into the interior of the bedroom in that corner. In time the water ran under the bedroom floor, and some of the water dropped onto the dining room below. There it damaged some furniture, the carpet, and the floor. A second stream of water damaged the wallpaper in the dining room.”
She further explained, “Different localized damage can stem from the same problem. Water from the roofline return eventually reached the sill of the building, and created an environment that supported rotting. We have replaced sections of the sill on either side of this corner. The good sections of the sill were preserved. The new sections were joined to the original sections with massive lap joints.”
Carolyn Roy noted that global problems have been addressed in a non-intrusive manner. She explained, “The two most global problems are light rays and relative humidity. We converted the light problem to a localized problem by addressing it at every window. We installed light-absorbing rigid acrylic sheets in each window. We cut the sheet to exactly fit the inside of the window, and suspended the sheet from two L hooks at the top. Curtains and other window treatments often conceal the edges of the sheets, and visitors are unaware of the sheets are there. The sheets absorb ultraviolet radiation, but they also capture some visible and infrared as well.”
Ms Roy explained, “The water vapor problem was far more difficult to attack. We had a problem with water from Court Street pouring onto this property and then into the earthen floor of the basement. One measure was to patch cracks in the foundation and to repair the sidewalk that had been opened by archaeological researchers.
“Other water still reached the basement. The crew solved that by digging a trench around the inside of the basement wall (massive fieldstones), and installing a tube in the trench. Water enters a tube and is pumped off the premises. Polyethylene film has been laid over the earthen floor as a low-tech vapor barrier to keep moisture out of the house.”
She then addressed the winter condensation problem. “The museum is closed during the winter, and there was no heat in the building during the winter. Of course, when the temperature fell, the relative humidity rose. That was solved with a hot air heating system.”
Although it seemed contradictory that heat would control moisture, Roy responded, “In the museums with gallery spaces, there is minute control of relative humidity. Objects in a house museum cannot be given as precise humidity control. The heating system in this house is activated by a humidistat rather than a thermostat. It attempts to maintain a range of relative humidity. The effect of raising temperature is to lower the relative humidity.”
Perhaps the most pervasive changes during the Thomas Bailey Aldrich Memorial years were painting of the walls and trim. Paint analysis specialist Susan Buck utilized paint chip analysis to identify the 1908 colors. The oddity of this project is that she was not searching for the original colors, but for a middle layer that denoted the first Colonial Revival layer. She then advised the museum of today’s commercially paints that were a close match to those 1908 colors. The paint was applied with brushes, as it would have been in 1908.
The most significant problem of the restoration project is the overall accumulation of smoke, grime, and dust on all the furnishings and accessories in the house. Carolyn Roy explained, “The hooked rugs are a great example of proper cleaning. They came with the house, and probably they had been in use for seventy years. They were uniformly gray. We regularly vacuumed them, and that helped a little. As part of the house-wide restoration, we sent the rugs out to Mary Anne Senatro, the textile conservator in Bedford, N.H. She was supposed to wash and stabilize them, and I expected they might be a little brighter when they came back. When the rugs returned, I could not believe how bright they were. She did a great job. We all marvel at the change.”
Overview of Strawbery Banke
Settlers arrived in today’s Portsmouth in 1630, and immediately named their community Strawbery Banke in recognition of the abundant fruit. In 1690 commercial growth accelerated along the waterfront with dock construction along a sheltered cove. The shipping district became known as the Puddle Dock neighborhood and that name has persisted to this day. In a blow to poetic expression, the municipality of Strawbery Banke was renamed Portsmouth.
Slowly, Portsmouth’s commercial district edged up the adjacent hill to the area now known as Downtown. As shipping subsided, the Puddle Dock neighborhood slipped into disrepair. Urban renewal experts planned to demolish a group of seedy structures that covered a ten-acre parcel. A handful of local citizens countered with a proposal for a museum featuring the long-forgotten history of the community. The victorious grassroots effort incorporated a museum in 1958 and took possession ten-acre site with 38 buildings.
At a first glance, Strawberry Banke Museum is a community museum similar to Historic Williamsburg or Old Sturbridge Village, but there are two significant differences. The buildings at Strawbery Banke were constructed on the ten-acre site, and most occupy their period location. Each building on the site has each been restored to a specific year in its life. For example, the Aldrich House demonstrates its use in 1908, while the Wheelwright has been restored to depict its use in 1780. A museum visitor has the opportunity to experience the longitudinal sweep of neighborhood life from the Seventeenth Century to the mid-Twentieth Century.
Visitors to Strawbery Banke will want to allocate plenty of time to stroll the adjacent Prescott Park. That long waterfront parcel is an ideal setting for a picnic overlooking the harbor. Repeat visitors enjoy interspersing visits to museum houses with strolls in the park. Here children can run and play, before returning to the more restricted museum setting. Contemporary floral gardens in the park and period gardens in the museum have both won national awards.
The Puddle Dock neighborhood extends far beyond museum grounds, and those who appreciate New England architecture will want to stroll the area. The museum was an impetus that stimulated individuals to purchase and restore most buildings in the area. Sometimes when a visitor stops to admire a house, the owner comes out to discuss his restoration project. Drawing upon the experiences and contacts of Strawbery Banke, homeowners located architects, carpenters, masons, and other artisans who share their interest in historic preservation. They have also been able to utilize the archival accounts, prints, and photographs that museum curators have located and evaluated.
The museum season is from mid May until the end of October, but some special events are staged during the off season. A Brewer’s Festival in October will feature New Hampshire microbreweries. Two weekends in December feature a unique Candlelight Stroll. The uniqueness of this stroll is that at each home along the way, winter holidays are depicted with a celebration in the period manner of that particular house.
Aldrich house gardens have been restored to the period when Aldrich was living in the house. His writings, particularly the poetry, mention specific species of flowers. Curators have attempted to locate period varieties of those flowers, and they have been skillfully planted in the gardens at the rear (south facing) side of the property.
Win Carter, The Early Ambassador
For many members of the antiques trade, Win Carter provided an introduction to Strawbery Banke. Carter was a scholar-dealer with great enthusiasm for antiques. His catalog on decoys by George Boyd of Seabrook, N.H. remains the definitive work on the subject. His research on English pewter helped many American museums properly identify and classify their pewter collections. The woodworking tool exhibit that he mounted at Strawbery Banke greatly stimulated collecting interest in the field.
As much as the trade admired the soft-spoken Carter, in the mid-1970s there was extensive skepticism that Strawbery Banke would become much of a museum. Other dealers listened politely as Win dreamed about his vision for the museum’s future. He was affectionately called The Ambassador from Strawbery Banke. It seemed hopeless that the man could see only the good, and did not recognize the pale cast by the downtrodden, dangerous surrounding Puddle Dock neighborhood.
Well, times have changed. Win passed away over a decade ago, but Strawbery Banke has grown to equal and exceed his dreams. The rundown neighborhood has recovered to become one of the most beautifully restored displays of American architecture from 1700 to 1840. Puddle Dock exudes vitality and pride. The curatorial offices are housed in the Winfred Carter Building, named in honor of its donor.
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