Nothing — and by nothing I mean history museums — is open in New England until after June 1. Okay, maybe not nothing. But many of the sites that I wanted to visit are open only during the tourist season and that, apparently, doesn’t start until June. I was there the last week in May. You ask: why didn’t you check on the opening dates, silly History Tourist? Because it never occurred to me that the season would start so late. Around here, it happens in late March/early April (I know, I know — southern springs are earlier).
Travel companion Kathie knew that I was bummed that I’d be missing so much (I’m looking at you, Historic New England). So she was quite excited when she emailed me that the Warner House, a house museum she’d particularly wanted me to see in Portsmouth, NH (but doesn’t open until June), mentions on their website that off-season tours are available if scheduled in advance. She wrote and they wrote back. Yes! They’d give us a tour.
And what a tour it was.
The Warner House (circa 1718) started as the home of Archibald and Sarah Macpheadris. Archibald was an Irish immigrant turned successful ship owner and merchant. Sarah was the daughter of John Wentworth, the lieutenant governor of New Hampshire. The Warner of Warner House came into the family with Jonathan Warner, a ship-owning merchant who married Sarah and Archibald’s only surviving child, Mary, in 1760. It used to be called the Macpheadris-Warner House. But then no one would tweet about them.
Our tour started in the early 20th century, in a parlor presented as it was when it belonged to Thomas Penhallow, Jonathan’s great, great, great grand-nephew. By Thomas’ time, it was used only in the summer for Thomas and his aunt, Evelyn Sherburne. The parlor is decorated the way Evelyn kept it, a vaguely 18th century revival room lined with Joseph Blackburn portraits of early Warners. The other 20th century room is the kitchen, which has been kept in the colonial revival style in which it was decorated by early (1930s) museum staff.
Each Warner House room is interpreted as a different period and focus’ on a specific family member. The front sitting parlor reflects Jonathan Warner’s tenancy during the mid to late 1700s. Upstairs, one bedroom is dedicated to Jonathan and one is interpreted as a Jonathan-era guest room. Two others reflect two of his daughters: Elizabeth Penhallow (dated to her widowhood in the late 1800s) and Eleanor Whipple (as a newly-wed in the mid-1800s). A tiny entry chamber is a 19th century playroom.
Our guide was Sandra Rux, Portsmouth Historical Society curator and the chair of the Warner House Board of Governors. She opened drawers to show us gorgeous, delicate silk shoes. She opened doors when we asked what was behind them. She answered endless questions about wood, fabrics and provenance. She spent two hours with us. At one point, well into the second hour and feeling guilty, I said, “This is going really long. Please don’t let us keep you any longer than you have.”
“Oh,” she said, breezily, “I’d only be at the John Paul Jones house, working on a speech I’ve got to give.”
The Warner House rooms are decorated using two probate inventories, Jonathan Warner’s from 1814 and Thomas Penhallow’s from 1930. And because it hadn’t been a permanent residence since the turn of the 20th century, its structure hadn’t been modified to accommodate the trappings of a modern life. Bad for the occupants, good for History Tourists. Furniture and other objects that had been disbursed with Thomas’ death have slowly been returning, most often donated by family members.
When Thomas died (unmarried) in 1930, he left the house to his brother’s children, who didn’t want it. An oil company offered to buy the house, which they planned to raze to make room for a gas station (leveling historic houses to make way for gas stations seemed to be the thing in the 1930s). The right people were appropriately horrified and by late 1931, a nonprofit owned the house. It opened as a museum in 1932.
Up next: Warner House Part II: Glitter Guns in the Parlor Chamber