400 Years Loitering
What if you could see
Again this week the crowds will gather to tick off the passing of a downtown New Year. I've got my First Night 2001 button, the one that lets me inside all the warm spaces where the singers and actors and dancers do their stuff. The theme this year is history. A few months back the gang at Pro Portsmouth asked if I'd suggest a list of 50 key events in Portsmouth's past. I did, and we popped it onto the Internet (www.portsmouthtimeline.com). Now, I'm told, a group of local artists has transformed that history list into a giant mural with 75 panels covering over 1,500 square feet of painted canvas that will be displayed along Pleasant Street on New Year's Eve. How anyone could be anywhere else that night is a mystery to me.
Like Times Square in New York City, this teensy turf, once The Parade and now called Market Square, is the hub of the Seacoast. Portsmouth's success depends on its diverse culture and its unchanging architecture. Dedicated ant-farm observers will notice subtle alterations since last year. Replacing Federal Cigar, formerly Green's Drug Store with a Starbucks apparently did not bring an end to life as we know it. The curved facade of Allie's Jewelers has been lovingly renovated to a late 19th century style.
Meanwhile the long-promised removal of Eagle Photo's tin marquee, the one hiding the oldest wooden building in the Square, is still a promise. The costly plan to repair that towering fragile North Church spire continues to evolve. Behind the church the fully restored miracle at Ten Pleasant Street has transformed a vacant lot to a bustling brick building nearly identical, on the surface, to the way it looked 100 years before. While across the street, the new shiny green Fleet Bank sign offends the eye like a giant, plastic Leggo toy plopped in the middle of an historic village. Unmindful of the karma of Market Square and one of the biggest banks in the world, Fleet misses the point that Starbucks seems to understand -- one size does not fit all. We are not recreating the past here, but tenaciously housing the hallowed spirits of this old town by the sea.
Should some powerful shade of Portsmouth Past appear on New Year's Eve and offer me three wishes (besides the obligatory million bucks tax free and world peace), I know exactly what I want -- a time machine. I'll be happy with a low-power transmission model that only works within half a mile of Market Square. That's not asking much. Or in a pinch, a simple time lapse camera would do the trick, something mounted high above the Square facing the North Church where Pleasant, Daniel and Market streets flow into Congress Street like the tributaries of the Piscataqua.
Let's set the camera to snap just one frame each week from its fixed position looking into Market Square and launch it back in time 400 years. Running the pictures at the standard 24 frames a second we should be able to condense the entire life of the Square into about 13 and a half minutes. Ready? Somebody hit the lights! Our film opens in the year 1600.
The first minute is super boring. All we see are trees, great tall trees that block our view of everything else and no signs of life. By 1630 we know there's a camp of about 50 settlers down just a few blocks in front of us along the water at Strawbery Banke. Historians think the first settlement was possibly near the current Memorial Bridge, but for the first few decades they didn't stray too far from the river. Most of the action is going on at the fishing villages on New Castle Island or up at the Isles of Shoals, but that's beyond our range.
About two minutes into our little film the trees begin to fall, cleared for farmland or masts for the ships of the King of England. Finally we can see the few blocks down what is now Daniel Street. Wooden houses are sprouting and, at three and a half minutes, the brick Warner House appears in the distance. Little wooden versions of the key Portsmouth churches rise up and one cart road coming north from the river at Strawbery Banke crosses the east-west path at what will become our famed intersection. Land is officially divided up among the prominent townsmen so we see fences and walls marking the early boundaries.
By the mid 1700s "The Parade" is growing actively residential and a number of larger two-story houses appear with fences and huts, barns and outbuildings. Wealthier Portsmouth citizens, some cashing in on the so-called "West India Trade", begin selling goods from street level shops, but the commercial center of the city is still along the waterfront. A poor woman caught stealing a pair of shoes for her child is stripped and beaten in the Square by the water pump. Local militia, loyal to the King, train along Pleasant street behind a tall wooden version of the North Church. Soon after, the church leases its rich "glebe" land to private citizens and the area toward State Street starts sprouting fields and orchards. It's the same between the Parade and the river between Bow and Market streets. Down Daniel we see a harbor choked with masts and wharves.
Six minutes, nearly halfway into our time-lapse film, the grand Old State House appears suddenly in the center of Market Square and a 10-foot brick watchbuilding in the center of Pleasant Street disappears. In freeze-frame, our movie catches crowds in Market Square, but for the most part, the Revolutionary War speeds by with little architectural change. Some of the political action takes place at Haymarket Square, behind our cameras at the other side of the city. The camera moves too quickly to catch Paul Revere warning of a British Invasion, or a few seconds later, the tiny figure of President Washington standing on the balcony of the Statehouse. For the first time girls attend classes at Mr. Dearborn's school near where Café Brioche sits today. Although the area still looks like a grand residential block, something like the head of Middle Street today, more stores are evident as the Parade slowly takes over as the towns commercial center. By 1800 there are still just 16 buildings that reach a full three stories high.
Then suddenly it's all gone. At seven minutes into our film the river reappears and the city blackens. Hundreds of wooden buildings burn, rise, burn, rise and burn again during three devastating fires of the early 1800s. Now out of the ashes rises a new city of brick, one we all can recognize. After surviving all three fires, the Old State House is torn down in the blink of an eye. For a second the wooden North Church vanishes, only to be replaced by a commanding brick structure with its marvelous 150-foot wooden spire, painted a dark brickish color. With 7,000 citizens now living in Portsmouth, the town is stretching out in all directions, reaffirming Market Square as the its heart. Grocery stores display their wares in the streets, awnings and signs pop out. A sturdy row of bank buildings fill the right side of the screen.
Ten minutes into our film the streets of Market Square are laced with a network of metal tracks while thin electric wires seem to dangle everywhere. Aboard a trolley Seabrook, York and Hampton beaches are minutes away. In seconds the tracks are gone along with the fountain at the center of the Square. Roads harden, curbs form and the traffic we all know so well begins to flow. Instantly the North Church steeple turns white. But the last minute of our film is nearly as dull as the opening. The decades rush toward us and the architecture stalls, freezing in the forms we know. Trees and lamps arrive, sidewalks inch wider and in subliminal milliseconds, crowds appear to be growing.
Then the movie stops and the screen goes blank and we're standing again in Market Square in real time, balancing on the edge of 2001. We're surrounded by paintings of Portsmouth through history. It's cold and crisp and the Square is hung with festive lights as the North Church strikes midnight. From the heart of the ancient city fireworks flare in the distance as the sounds of pleasured crowds drift back from the old mill pond and thousands of ghosts applaud silently.
Read Brewster essays on Market Square
By J. Dennis Robinson
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