By Brock W.Jobe and Marianne Moulton, SPNEA
On November 3, 1789, George Washington noted in his diary, "Portsmouth, it is said, contains about 5,000 inhabitants. There are some good houses, (among which Col. Langdon's may be esteemed the first)." Washington was visiting the city four years after the completion of John Langdon's house, a Georgian structure of imposing design and ornate detail that is an emphatic reminder of the affluence and stature of its builder.
The son of a Portsmouth farmer of modest means, Langdon eschewed agriculture for the riskier but more profitable arena of commerce. He was apprenticed to a prosperous local merchant and by 1763 had set out on his own. He achieved immediate success as a ship's captain in the lumber trade and with the profits from his voyages he established a shipping and shipbuilding firm in Portsmouth. As his wealth grew he developed an interest in politics and soon became one of New Hampshire's revolutionary leaders. In 1774 he led a band of militia against the British garrison at Fort William and Mary in nearby Newcastle. The next year he represented the colony at the second Continental Congress.
After independence, the new national government rewarded him with two lucrative posts: continental agent, and agent for prizes in New Hampshire. As continental agent, he oversaw the purchase and outfitting of vessels, some of which were built at his own shipyard. As agent for prizes he determined the distribution of cargoes from captured vessels. Here too he benefited for he invested in a number of privateers. Langdon seems to have acted responsibly in his positions but, as one writer noted, he "profited greatly from the economic opportunities they offered."
Building the Perfect Home
In 1783, as Portsmouth's leading citizen, Langdon began construction of an appropriate residence. Daniel Hart and Michael Whidden III, skillful local joiners, oversaw the project. Their design was a traditional one, and the exterior differs little from that of Portsmouth houses erected before the Revolution. The interior also follows a standard plan with a balanced arrangement of rooms on either side of a central hall. Ornate carving embellishes the fireplace wall in each of the two formal parlors. Langdon could have selected neoclassical motifs as his brother Woodbury Langdon (1739-1805) did for his house in 1785. Instead, John chose less fashionable, but nonetheless impressive, rococo ornament. The carver copied certain details from the mantelpiece patterns in Abraham Swan's British Architect, first published in London in 1745, some forty years earlier.
John Langdon moved into his new house during the spring of 1785 and resided there until his death in 1819. He continued to play a major role in New Hampshire affairs, and as an ally of Jefferson he was instrumental in organizing the state's Republican party. He served as a United States senator from 1789 until 1801 and as New Hampshire's Republican governor from 1805 to 1809 and again in 1810 and 1811. Colleagues found him "easy, polite, and pleasing in his manners, and social in his habits" and according to another account he was fond of "pomp and parade."' His stature and reputation for hospitality prompted many to call on him when visiting Portsmouth, including the marquis de Chastellux, the Charlestown diarist John Drayton, and George Washington. The Langdon House was well suited for social gatherings. The parlor shown in Plate II was ideal for small gatherings, tea, or card parties. Larger entertainments were held in the double parlor, a grand, ceremonial room reminiscent in scale of the banquet hall at Mount Vernon in Virginia.
Langdon retired from public life in 1812, content to pass "the evening of his days ... in the pleasing enjoyment of his family and friends.", Elizabeth Sherburne, his wife of thirty-six years, died in 1813, and Langdon succumbed on September 18,,1819, after a long illness. His daughter and sole heir, Elizabeth Langdon Elwyn, resided in the house until 1833. Anne Peirce Burroughs, the wife of the Reverend Charles Burroughs, acquired the house three years later, and lived in it with her husband until 1877. During their occupancy fire damaged the northeast corner of the house, and the rear dining room and the bedroom above it were renovated in the Greek revival style.
In 1877 a descendant of Woodbury Langdon, also named Woodbury Langdon, bought the house from Mrs. Burroughs. He was a rich New York dry-goods merchant whose wife, Elizabeth Langdon Elwyn, was a great-great-granddaughter of John Langdon. In 1905 the Langdons commissioned the architectural firm of McKim, Mead and White to replace the existing rear kitchen ell with a much larger addition and to make minor changes in the interior of the main house and to the front portico. The centerpiece of the addition was a colonial revival dining room, which remains intact with its original furnishings. Mrs. Langdon bequeathed the property to the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, and to comply with her wishes it was named the Governor John Langdon Mansion Memorial.
Today the Langdon house is situated on a two-andone-half-acre lot that is slightly larger than John Langdon's original parcel. The garden reflects the plan established by Mrs. Woodbury Langdon, while inside the house Mrs. Langdon's furnishings have been supplemented with objects from the Society's collections. Many objects have Portsmouth histories of ownership-some in the Langdon family and are important documents for the study of local craftsmanship. In the years ahead, the Society plans to introduce more objects from the Portsmouth region, thus allowing visitors to view outstanding local decorative arts in one of the town's most significant architectural landmarks.
This article originally appeared in Antiques Magazine
Barbara Ann Cleary, "The Governor John Langdon Mansion Memorial: New Perspectives in Interpretation," Old-Time New England, vol. 69, nos. 1-2 (Summer-Fall 1978), p. 23. This excellent study presents much useful information about Langdon and his house. It and a binder of historical information about the house compiled by Jean Follett and now in the archives of the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, have been helpful in the preparation of this article.
Nathaniel Adams, Annals of Portsmouth (Portsmouth, New Hampshire, 1825), P. 372. Cleary, "The Governor John Langdon Mansion Memorial," p. 29.
Langdon House Photo Tour
Click on thumbnails to see larger photo and caption.
All photos courtesy SPNEA
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