End of Summer Architectural Day Trip: The Architecture of the Piscataqua

The Architectural Heritage of the Piscataqua: Houses and Gardens of the Portsmouth District of Maine and New Hampshire by John Mead Howells is considered a classic book on the colonial architecture of the seacoast region of New Hampshire and southern Maine. No longer in print, the architectural monograph is replete with black and white exterior and interior photographs and floor plans of some of the most influential houses in American architecture. Two years ago, while browsing through the art and architecture section at the Brattle Bookshop in Boston, I came across a gorgeous used copy of The Architectural Heritage of the Piscataqua. I knew I would study the images in the book for years to come and had no other option but to buy it. During my New Hampshire vacation two weeks ago, my friend and I headed to Portsmouth (a familiar territory) on a day trip to explore the architectural heritage of the Piscataqua region. 

Located a stone throws away from the campus of the University of New Hampshire (UNH), Portsmouth offers an all-inclusive education in American colonial architecture. In fact, while a student at UNH, Portsmouth was my personal “on the field” classroom while I took a 17th and 18th century American Architecture course (we did not go on any fieldtrips considering Portsmouth is only about a ten minute drive from the UNH campus). This course not only introduced me to the colonial architecture of the East, South and Midwestern parts of the country, but also to the driving influences of pattern books and architectural treatises including Leon Battista Alberti’s De re aedificatoria (1452, Ten Books on Architecture) Sebastiano Serlio’s Il Settimo Libro Archittetura del Serglio (1575), Andrea Palladio’s  I Quattro Libri dell’Architettura (The Four Books of Architecture)  to Inigo Jones, the English architect who fell in love with Palladio and gave us the first English translation of The Four Books of Architecture.  

The following are just some of the houses you’ll encounter in Portsmouth.

The Jones House, part of the Strawbery Banke Museum was built around 1790. The Strawbery Banke museum is Portsmouth most popular destination, an outdoor history museum containing more than 40 restored buildings spanding the 17th through the 19th century. For more information, visit http://www.strawberybanke.org

Goodwin mansion. Built around 1811, the Goodwin Mansion served as the home of civil war governor Ichabod Goodwin from 1832-1896. The house has a beautiful recreated Victorian garden. For more information, visit http://www.strawberybanke.org

The Governor John Langdon House was built around 1784 by the Governor himself. This house is considered to be one of the best examples of the Georgian style fully developed in the colonies and according to Howells “both interior and exterior show the mastery which our builders, joiners and carvers had achieved over their materials.” The house is owned by Historic New England and is open to the public for viewing. For more information visit http://www.historicnewengland.org

The MacPheadris-Warner House is considered to be one of the earliest extant brick urban mansions in the country. It was built in 1716-1718 for Archibald MacPheadris, a Scottish Captain. According to Howells’ The Architectural Heritage of the Piscataqua, the gambrel roof of the house is not original, instead there was a double peaked roofs running the entire length of the house with deep valleys between them. This beautiful example of an early Georgian house in New Hampshire is 2 ½ stories tall with symmetrically placed equal number of rooms on each side. The exterior door with its segmental pediment acknowledges one’s arrival both physically and symbolically, it builds up the anticipation for its lavish interior. As you can see from this picture, the segmental arch above the door is missing, the house has been under restoration for a number of years, proof that preservation is not only costly, but also a lengthy process as well. For more information visit,www.warnerhouse.org.

The Moffatt-Ladd House built around 1763 is a full three story house signifying the progression of wealth in the colonies. It is a refined Georgian house with a free standing Greek portico and a grand asymmetric plan. The house is owned and maintained by The National Society of The Colonial Dames of America in the State of New Hampshire (NSCDA-NH) and has been open to the public since 1912. For more information visit http://www.moffattladd.org. Although I have photographed this house myself in the past, I cannot locate such images therefore I am borrowing this image from Birdgal5 on Flickr.

One of my favorite houses in Portsmouth is the Larkin-Rice House. Built in 1815 by Samuel Larkin, this gorgeous, understated and highly refined Federal style house has been attributed to both Benjamin Latrobe for its similarities to the Burd House in Philadelphia (sadly demolished) and to Charles Bulfinch, architect of the Massachusetts State Capitol. This image was taken by “Dan,” for more images of other historical places in New England, click on the image. I will update the image when I visit Portsmouth again in the future.

If you are ready to indulge in 17th and 18th century architecture in New England, Portsmouth is one of two distinct coastal destinations (the other being Salem, MA) to spend a weekend day trip exploring the fascinating architecture and gardens  of Colonial America. Grab your copy of The Architectural Heritage of the Piscataqua (it’s a big book!) or any other 17th and 18th century American architecture guidebook and head to Portsmouth. This seacoast town in New Hampshire has many historic house museums, great restaurants and shops all within walking distance from one another! It is the perfect day trip for all those architectural history geeks like myself or those interested in naval American history or historic gardens.  The houses discussed in this post are only a handful of the historic treasures waiting to be re-discovered by you.   

Have you gone to Portsmouth, if so, do you have a favorite house?

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