Friday, February 24, 2017

The Portsmouth Assembly House, Part I

The divided Assembly House in 1938
While researching social dancing in Portsmouth, NH in the first half of the 18th century, I came across a reference to a personal remembrance of the 18th century Assembly House (circa 1770) by Sarah Parker Rice Goodwin (1805-1896).  She was the wife Ichabod Goodwin, the governor of New Hampshire at the start of the Civil War. Her papers are held by Strawbery Banke Museum. As a prominent member of Portsmouth in her own right, her reflections are very interesting. I found her remembrances of the Assembly House were so interesting that I think they should be seen in their entirety. Some of the remembrances were probably handed down to her, but her birth is close enough to the period that the earliest reflections may be those of her grandmother, mother and perhaps her own youth.  For the reader's ease I broke her essay into three sections without any other other structural alterations.

These two images show the altered building turned on its original site. The Assembly House would have been parallel to the street and risen above the roof tops of its neighbors.

The divided Assembly House in 1970

Part I, The Assembly House:

"If the old Assembly House were still in being, what a treasury of art memories it would be in these days of centennial excitement and interest! The builder and owner of this interesting house was Mr. Michael Whidden, who must have been a real artist and a remarkable man. I can remember him distinctly as he appeared in his nineties. He was little and florid, and wore a white linen skull-cap, such as is worn by masons at their work. The house was of wood, large, long, and painted white. There were on the lower floor three great parlors, a kitchen, and an immense hall and staircase. This hall ran through the house and opened upon a garden, decorated by a summer-house, octagon in shape, of two stories, with large glass windows. How many bouquets of red clover- blossoms I have gathered in this garden, to my great delight!

The assembly-room took the whole front of the second story, and was about sixty by thirty feet, with large windows and an orchestra over the entrance. Back of it were two dressing-rooms. There were three chandeliers for wax candles, and branches from the walls also for candles. In the assembly-room the cornices were beautifully carved, and in all the rooms the carving was richly gilded.

Perhaps the most remarkable feature of the Assembly House was the abundance and variety of wood carvings. The facade was decorated in festoons of flowers over the windows, and every imaginable figure proper to external ornamentation was there. Years ago, when the house was sawed in two, preparatory to being moved away, bits of carving and gilding were scattered about the street, to the delight of children. It was clear, sheer Vandalism; and there is nothing so beautiful now."*

A very altered Portsmouth Assembly House lasted nearly 200 years. In 1838 the original building was cut in half and swung apart to create a street between the buildings. The second floor was lowered in height and altered beyond recognition.(Gurney, 46-47)  The buildings were demolished in the early 1970s. 

However, in the Austen Only blog there is a section on the Stamford Assembly rooms, which fits the footprint of the Portsmouth site, so image below will help give a sense of the Assembly House in Portsmouth, NH during the late 18th century into the early 19th century.

Stamford Assembly Room © Austenonly
An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in the Town of Stamford, Her Majesty's Stationery Office, London, 1977 provides a floor plan of the Stamford hall, and also an approximation of the Portsmouth Assembly performance floor. This floor plan also appear in the Austen blog, but I provide this link to the Monmument's text as a source for other historic architectural researchers.

Stamford Assembly Room Floor Plan

*This account of the old Assembly House was found among the papers of the late Mrs. Ichabod Goodwin, and was written by her in 1870 and appear in:

Portsmouth Book, Boston, Geo. H. Ellis, Printer, 272 Congress Street, 1899. pg 48-49.

Portsmouth Historic and Picturesque, C.S. Gurney pub. 1902, reprinted in 1981 by Strawbery banke Museum, Peter Randall, publisher.

The next part of the essay discusses the dances and clothing.

Jeff Hopper is the Director of the Warner House and researches social history.

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