“If General Washington were to visit you,” I said to Mrs. Stavers, the tavern keeper’s wife at Pitt Tavern in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, “where would you entertain him?” It was 1777 at the tavern and George Washington wouldn’t be doing his New England tour (when he’d spent 4 days in Portsmouth) for another 12 years. But stalking George Washington in Portsmouth was turning into an epic fail and I was determine to eke something out. Mrs. Stavers smiled a knowing smile at me. “I might entertain him here,” she said about the large front room in which we stood. “Or, since he is a Freemason, he may want to be upstairs.” The Freemason’s Grand Lodge of New Hampshire had been started on the third floor of the tavern. Local legend has it (though nothing appears in his diary) that Washington made a quick stop there on his way out of town.
Upstairs was closed for renovations. Curses – foiled again.
The tavern (c. 1766) is part of Strawbery Banke Museum, which encompasses – and tells the history of — an entire neighborhood in the south end of Portsmouth. And by “an entire neighborhood,” I mean that the museum covers 10 acres and includes 32 buildings on their original sites and 4 other local buildings that had been slated for destruction and moved to the museum. The oldest of the houses on exhibit was built circa 1695, the newest circa 1836. Sadly, most of the 19th and 20th century buildings were demolished before it was decided to save all existing buildings in the neighborhood.
While the buildings were lost, the story of the lives of their 19th and 20th century occupants was not. The once thriving seaport area had turned into a low-income neighborhood by the early 20th century and Strawbery Banke (the original name of the area now Portsmouth) interprets not only the lives of its wealthy colonial and early American residents, but also those of the 20th century working class. They present history as a continuum and have their share of beautiful 18th and 19th century mansions (my staircase obsessed self fell in love with the one in the 1762 Chase House, where I learned that ship builders often did the fine carpentry work in early houses). But what I found most interesting about Strawbery Banke is that, with enough 18th century buildings to be all about colonial pretty, they chose to present what late architectural critic Ada Louise Huxtable called “the genuine heritage of less picturesque periods….” Strawbery Banke may not show 20th (or 17th,18th or 19th) century slums as they were, but they do what they can to preserve the authenticity of an ever-evolving community without scaring the tourists.
The first place we actually headed once in the exhibit area was the Shapiro House, home to a family of early 20th century Ukrainian-Jewish immigrants. “You have to meet Mrs. Shapiro,” said Kathie, who is a regular visitor. “She’s great.” Exhibits throughout the two story house traced the lives of the Shapiro family: shopkeeper Abraham, wife Sara, daughter Molly, and various boarders. The house itself was built around 1795 but it’s presented as it was in 1919. Mrs. Shapiro, usually in her kitchen, was on a break.
The other 20th century exhibit was in the Marden-Abbott building, circa 1720 but shown as a World War II era house and grocery store. Many of the items in the store were ubiquitous during my 1960s childhood. Do you know when you can call yourself old? When you see your life presented as a history museum display.