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Our man Brewster was last reporter
to set foot in the Old Statehouse

See also: The Building in the Middle of the Road
and History of the Old Statehouse by James Garvin

Old Statehouse It all disappeared in 1836 when the aging Old Court House in Portsmouth's Market Square was divided up and carted off. It was the end of an era, an historic reminder that the old British colony of New Hampshire was at an end. By this time the last of the Revolutionary War soldiers were aged veterans and the Old Statehouse was a wreck. Little could they imagine that, in the 21st century, their ancestors would be struggling to rebuild the structure that was briefly the capitol of all New Hampshire.

Portsmouth Journal reporter Charles Brewster was on the scene to cover the last stand of the Old Statehouse. This fascinating 1836 report was recently rediscovered by historian Richard Winslow, who first found a reference to it an 1878 letter to Brewster's son and heir Lewis Brewster. We reprint, for your edification, both the father's original essay and his son's response. -- J. Dennis Robinson

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Letter to Lewis Brewster
Letter to the Portsmouth Journal, 1878

Mr. Brewster:
Will you please state in your next issue the date of the removal of the old Court House, and date of demolition of old North Church, and date of erection of the now present church, and oblige
--- Contestant.

Editor William Brewster Responds in 1878:
The above inquiry has led to a very pleasing search into the events of a half a century ago. But we will first answer the questions respecting the North Church. The old North Church edifice was sold by auction April 29, 1854; and the new North Church was dedicated Nov. 1 1855, having been built at a cost of $30,000.

The old Court House, situated at the westerly end of the Parade was one of the historical relics of Portsmouth, which is not yet entirely demolished. A portion of the building is now standing on the north side of Court street just east of Atkinson street, where it was removed and made into a dwelling house, the many paned windows still remaining. The building was sold at auction by the authorities of the town on the 22nd of October, 1836 to be removed within ten days of the time of sale, and was purchased by Capt. Israel Marden. On the 9th of November the board of selectmen ordered the leveling of the ground upon which the house had stood. The opening which will be made when the old National Hotel shall have been taken down, will soon give us a conception of the blank that met the eyes of the people of Portsmouth when they no longer rested upon their time honored State House.

Something of their feelings is indicated in the following mention of the removal, in the editorial columns of the Journal of Nov. 5 1836. We think it will interest many readers:

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The Old State House
Portsmouth & Great Falls Journal of Literature & Politics
Saturday, November 5, 1836
By Charles W. Brewster

As the shell of the old house is yet presented to public view, its vacant windows seem glaring most beseechingly upon passersby, and the borrowed tone of the neighboring bell seems hourly to say "Am I to sink, unwept, unhonored and unsung?" Once the greatest and most honored fabric of the granite State: am I to pass off at the blow of an ivory hammer, and even my foundations be treated with contempt?"

It was in pity to the frail tenement, that we entered its propt doors to administer what cordials we possessed to its relief, -- not with the hope of resuscitating it from its sinking disease, but to ease down with out a groaning creak, the last firm post of its oaken frame.

As we entered for the last time the hall where Justice with even scale had held her courts for more than half a century, -- the hall where the governors, and councils, and senates had convened, -- the hall where the greatest men of the State had breathed in the glory of their highest ambition, -- the hall, to obtain a seat in which , no sacrifice had been spared, and when attained, no honor more highly appreciated, we saw the vision of by-gone days pass in rapid succession before us.

The early scenes were of the first national interest. Within these walls was the procession formed which, in 1765, followed the coffin of Liberty,-- and arriving at the burial place, finding some signs of life, buried the Stamp Act in its stead, and cherished the feeble embers until the incense of freedom arose to the clouds. It was here that a l the formalities of the induction of Governor Wentworth, as the English agent, were gone through with. It was here that the citizens met in 1774, and declared against tea. It was from the balcony of the house that in 1783, the proclamation of Peace was read to the joyful citizens.

We now walked to the "cast room" and as we for the last time cast our eyes upon the outward scene, the recollection of former years, of a moment when this old house was more honored than at any other since it erection, burst so fully upon us that we could almost fancy that time had rolled back fifty years for our accommodation. The interesting moment which returned was that when Washington stood upon the balcony over these free-stone steps the father of his country with uncovered head, receiving and reciprocating the hospitalities of this ancient town. The thousands of gratified spectators, in their best cocked hats and leather breaches, and fair ones with tight sleeves and hooped dresses, did not obstruct the scenery around from the eyes of the distinguished guest. The view is brought so fresh to us that we cannot forebear to give it, hoping that some pencil may be moved to sketch the perspective of our town, as looked upon by Washington in 1789.

As he looked down Court street to the south, at the north corner of Pitt street, elevated behind an apparent barricade of rough granite, was a dark two story house -- some uncouth buildings were visible at both corners of narrow Buck street ---fter passing one or two other dwelling houses, a spacious house was presented end to the street, with large elms around it, directly south of where the market now stands, --the site of the market was then occupied by a hatter's shop in front, in the centre of the street, was the brick watch--house, ten or twelve feet square on a ledge of rocks, -- and where the north-west corner of the market now is, were the stocks and the whipping post. Then was the place the bank now occupies filled with a gable-roof house; directly in front of where Washington stood was a garden, at the corner of Daniel street where , beneath the shade of a large apple tree the collection of citizens was as common as it now is front of the Athenaeum.

After passing one or two dwelling houses, behind on Market street, a small shop was visible at the place Mr. Nowell now occupies. Next came an antique dwelling house, behind three elm trees, with gothic windows, unoccupied from the impression it was haunted. At the place where Mr. Clark's store now is, was the only brick building, except the watch-house, visible from the parade. On the northside of the parade, as the eye glanced along from Market street west, (now filled with handsome block of brick) an old garrison house met the sight at the corner of High street, and a succession of small buildings, barber shops, a garden, &c. filled up the space to a large building on the corner of Market street. That street was then very irregular, in some parts not much more than half its present width.

In the scenery of the times, the State House made no awkward figure, --it was an ornament, and we do injustice to our grandsires in blaming them for putting so handsome a building where everybody could behold it. But innovation

We were going on administering other words of consolation to the old State House, but at this moment the clock struck one and as the undertaker we found standing with tools in hand waiting for us to depart, the bell took our last words from our lips, and rang its changes until we were out of hearing - "Innovation-In-no-va-tion! Sic transit gloria mundi!"

top of page Notes
to Brewster Statehouse Report, 1836:

This may get confusing since this piece by editor Charles Brewster was first edited by his son William Brewster. But we are editing it again for 21st century readers. --- JDR

(1) "old North Church"
Young Brewster was undoubtedly aware that his famous father Charles Brewster had published a sentimental poem about the demise of the old North Church and the loss of its ancient weathervane. We've reprinted the poem in our Songs & Ballads section. In Brewster's era, both the Statehouse and old church were torn down, radically changing this area of the city where he spent most of his life walking back and forth between his newspaper office and his home on Pleasant Street. It was Charles Brewster, almost single-handedly, writing hundreds of articles about the city's history during his career, who kept many of these old memories alive in print during the 19th century -- and through to today.

(2) "building is now standing on
the north side of Court street"

The ongoing movement to reconstruct the Old Statehouse began a half century ago. It picked up momentum when Portsmouth's clear-cut urban renewal programs threatened and destroyed hundreds of old houses. At that time, the remains of the Old Statehouse were transported to the new Strawbery Banke area near today's Prescott Park. Historians at this time identified the building on Court Street and the state of New Hampshire purchased it. The plan was to reconstruct the colonial statehouse as a "visitor's center" at Strawbery Banke, but a research report issued at the time cast doubt on the authenticity of the Court Street building. The project lanuished for two decades. After one nearly successful effort to appropriate state funds, the project lost momentum, Stawbery Bank changed its mission, and the old building was dismantled and stored in a trailer in Concord, NH. Ironically, it appears the Court Street building actually is a piece of the original Old Statehouse after all. Today, efforts to save the building are again making headlines.

(3) unwept, unhonored and unsung
The quote is from Sirt Walter Scott as you can see in the final line:

Breathes There the Man
from The Lay of the Last Minstrel

  Breathes there the man with soul so dead,
  Who never to himself hath said,
  This is my own, my native land!
  Whose heart hath ne'er within him burn'd,
  As home his footsteps he hath turn'd
  From wandering on a foreign strand!
  If such there breathe, go, mark him well;
  For him no Minstrel raptures swell;
  High though his titles, proud his name,
  Boundless his wealth as wish can claim;
  Despite those titles, power, and pelf,
  The wretch, concentred all in self,
  Living, shall forfeit fair renown,
  And, doubly dying, shall go down
  To the vile dust, from whence he sprung,
  Unwept, unhonored, and unsung.
  --- Sir Walter Scott

The line reminds us of the final line by Brewster's contemporary, Portsmouth poet James Kennard Jr. who speaks of the lost sailors on Smuttynose island in these words: "unknown, unknelled, they slept."

(4) in 1765, followed the coffin of Liberty
Brewster is referring to a protest in the city in which a coffin was carried to the Liberty pole (now seen in Prescott Park in the South End). There was also an incident where the local British Stamp official was so frightened by a mob of Portsmouth protesters surrounding his house, that he quit the job, thus relieving anyone of the dangerous job of collecting taxes on the very unpopular stamp act. Later the historic house of the Stamp Agent was occupied by Daniel Webster during his decade as a lawyer in Portsmouth. Despite two historic occupants, the house, which stood near the North End, was destroyed by Urban Renewal in the 20th century.

(5) Athenaeum
When it was built the attractive Portsmouth Athenaeum looked directly into at the aging Old Statehouse which stood bewteen the Athenaeum and the Old North Church in the middle of what is now Market Square. Artist have tried for a century ot more to imagine what the building must have looked like in the middle of the "Parade" as the area was then called.

Original material is
© 1999 Attribute all references.

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