Georgian Grandeur in Portsmouth

Portsmouth always struck me as a Georgian town, even from a young age, when I first developed an appreciation for historic houses at Strawbery Banke and first spotted what is still one of my very favorite houses nearby. There are Federal houses too, but it doesn’t feel as Federal as its sister seaports to the south, Newburyport and Salem. There is a range of Georgian houses in Portsmouth, from relatively simple to absolutely grand: on this past weekend I revisited three of the latter varieties: the Warner House (1716) the Moffatt-Ladd House (1763),  and the Governor John Langdon House (1784). Each house has a different owner, and a different………style, but all are exquisite representations of their era. The combination of the entirety of their construction with all the crafted details within—including the wonderful Portsmouth furniture in each house—is hard to capture: you’ll just have to visit each one yourself.

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Georgian Langdon HouseThe Warner House, owned and operated by the Warner House Association from the early 1930s, The MoffattLadd House, owned and operated by the National Society of The Colonial Dames of America in the State of New Hampshire, and the Governor Langdon House, a property of Historic New England.

I loved the colors of the Warner House: rich jewel tones throughout. It’s not too pristine: you do get the feeling that you are imposing on the past (although there is quite a lot of plastic fruit). Those wild murals! The textures are wonderful too—especially of the smalted rooms upstairs. This is the oldest urban brick house in North America and it feels that way: both old and urban. You look out its windows and see a bustling city—this would not have been the case in the 1930s when it was rescued or even later: the Warner guide, like all the Portsmouth guides I encountered last weekend, stressed the fact that the city’s current vibrance contrasts with its more depreciated state in the 1970s—and I remember that to be the case.

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Warner 2collage

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Warner 3collageParlors and bedrooms at the Warner House, a scary squirrel, and always the threat of fire (the tool is to take apart your very valuable bed).

The Moffatt-Ladd House has been very much in the thick of things from its construction; once it faced the wharves of prosperous Portsmouth, but now the horse chestnut tree planted in 1776 by General William Whipple upon his return from signing the Declaration of Independence still stands guard at the entrance to its courtyard. It’s a very airy house inside due to its elevated situation as well as its large entrance parlor—and its beautiful rear parlor, now in the midst of restoration, runs parallel to the wonderful terraced garden outside.

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Moffatt-Ladd Stairs

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Georgian Portsmouth 13Moffatt-Ladd parlors and stairs, front parlor original wallpaper and the parlor-in-process with its amazing mantle and Chinese Chippendale chairs; I always brake for fire buckets! The amazing garden.

I think Georgian houses have to be pre-revolutionary, but I’m the only one who thinks that, so I am including the Governor Langdon House, which was built the year after the American Revolution concluded. The scale is even larger here than Moffatt-Ladd, and the house reflects the passage of time, with Greek and Colonial Revival rooms as well as a dining room designed by Stanford White. It seems both national in inspiration but also very much a crafted Portsmouth house, as illustrated by those distinctive staircase balusters, contrasted below with those of Moffatt-Ladd (on the left).

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Langdon Hallway

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Langdon Mantle

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Georgian Portsmouth 2Those Rococo mantles! And all that beautiful Portsmouth furniture. As you move back through the house, you move up in time, into Greek and Colonial Revival rooms.

While I was looking around for images of the houses in their earlier situations, I came across the works of two women artists among the digital collections of the Portsmouth Public Library: Sarah Haven Foster (1827-1900) and Helen Pearson (1870-1949). Both Portsmouth women clearly loved the architecture of their native city, and rendered it in series of charming vignettes, which were incorporated in their successive guidebooks. Wonderful discoveries: Foster’s naivete and Pearson’s detail both capture Portsmouth’s charm, past and (fortunately) present.

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Georgian Warner Pearson

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Langdon DoorVignettes by Sarah Haven Foster (the Warner House) and Helen Pearson (Warner, Moffatt-Ladd garden, Langdon doorway), Portsmouth Public Library Digitized Collections.

6 responses to “Georgian Grandeur in Portsmouth

  • Helen Breen

    Hi Donna,

    Thanks for yet another jaunt to one of New England’s most historic cities – with which, I regret to say, I am not that familiar. Great pics and sources, per usual. Putting Portsmouth on to my “to do” list…

  • dccarletonjr

    A fine post about a fascinating town!

    Regarding your comment about whether one can rightly talk of “Georgian” houses being built after the Revolution, one part of the problem is that stylistic trends can be only imperfectly correlated with (geo)political changes. American architecture and material culture remained part of the “Anglosphere” long after independence.

    To be pedantic, “Georgian” obviously covers anything made during the reign of the Georges, and so in the UK covers everything from the late-Baroque through radical neoclassicism. On that level, it doesn’t really connote an architectural “style” at all, any more than does “Victorian,” which encompasses modes ranging from Greek Revival through Shingle Style not to mention the Colonial Revival.

    So on one level, your instinct to ditch “Georgian” post-1776 makes excellent sense, because that’s when the rebelling British Americans decided against continuing to be Georgians themselves. When applied to the American colonies, “Georgian” certainly connotes a whole way of life, of being, defined by membership in the British empire, one that was swept away (at least in the realm of political culture) by the Revolution. Some historians argue that colonial America, despite the strength of local and provincial self-government, was essentially a “monarchical” culture, and so you could sort of see the terms “Georgian” and “monarchical” as synonymous, and equally off for describing things post-independence.

    As for the evolution of high-style architecture in the former colonies, however, modes fashionable before independence persisted into the later 1780s, when the robust, sculptural classicism of the later colonial period began to be supplanted by the more delicate, flattened, attenuated versions of the classical vocabulary we know as neoclassicism or the “federal” style, ironically enough itself a provincial American adaptation of British Georgian architectural fashions established in the former mother country a decade or more before.

    • daseger

      What a wonderful and substantive comment, Don–thank you! Being neither an architectural or an American historian my instincts govern my opinions rather than any expertise, but I guess I’m just governed by the immensity of the Revolution itself—we can’t be Georgian after that!

  • Dorothy V. Malcolm

    Wonderful article and photos. Thank you, Donna!

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