The Pierce Mansion on Middle Street in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, is one of the great Federal houses of New England, an American interpretation of Adam motifs. Built in 1799 by John Pierce, the house remained in the hands of his descendants until the 1950s. The design is sometimes attributed to Charles Bulfinch, and indeed is nearly identical to his now demolished Appleton house in Boston, and has details virtually identical with those on his Ezekial Hersey Derby house in Salem.
The Pierce Mansion in the late 19th century, with Victorian Porch
In a 1930’s colorized postcard
The house was situated at the head of a curve in the street, a location meant to impress . The over scaled cupola gave an almost monumental appearance to the otherwise delicately detailed house, and the attenuated neo-classical detail of the house signaled a new direction in design from the Georgian and Rococo that had dominated Portsmouth architecture for the previous half century. Here is seen the optimism and prosperity of the New Republic.
One entered a wide hall with delicately carved woodwork in the ‘punch and gouge’ characteristic of Federal work. To the left was an elliptical staircase flanked by arched openings, with delicately reeded woodwork giving delicate life to the composition. In the curve of the staircase sat one of the extraordinary pieces of furniture to survive from the era, a curved shield back Hepplewhite settee, built to sit against the curved wall of the stairwell. So extraordinary was the settee in the canon of early American furniture, that it was pictured on the cover of the very first issue of The Magazine Antiques in 1922.
Two views of the stair, by Samuel Chamberlain, from Portsmouth, A Camera Impression (Hastings House, 1940)
In the 1950’s, the house was occupied by Mrs Winslow Pierce. Her son, the next heir, was uninterested and unwilling to take on the house. The curved settee was sold to Henry Francis DuPont, and taken to Winterthur, where it can still be seen in a niche built for it in an upper hall, stripped of its original context.
The house was placed on the market, and purchased by the Baptist Church next door for use as meeting space and vestry. Although their intentions have not been bad per se, they have chipped slowly away at the integrity of house and setting, and stirring though the house is, it is also sad making. The great curving fence that embraced the facade and tied the house to the street, was swept away. The new church, designed in a flat, well meaning ‘colonial’ style was joined to the house by a wing, badly scaled. The house was painted red and white to ‘blend’ with the red brick and white trim of the church. The front walk was rerouted to a divided path that split the difference between the connector door and the main door, removing the front door’s direct axial contact with the street. It is very awkward looking, and more than a little sad. The rear grounds were leveled and paved for a large parking lot. The house became white again, but only by dint of the addition of vinyl siding. Plastic shutters, screwed to the sides of the windows, replaced the original working shutters. (NOTE: For more on the Dilettante’s stand on plastic shutters, read here) Now, where was I? Oh yes. Pierce mansion. The balustrade was next. A new balustrade on the roof is thinly made and constructed in relation to the old one, further destroying the scale.
Personal Note: Our friend Gregory, a man of both formidable taste and purse, and his wife then summered at nearby Kittery Point. He was taken by relatives to visit Mrs. Pierce, who it was understood, wished to sell the set of Chinese Chippendale chairs in the drawing room, one of the rare American sets in this style., originally owned by the brother of New Hampsire’s last Royal Governor. The motivation for the sale was that the disinterested son desired money for a new pick-up. The chairs went later with Gregory to his summer home on Coolidge Point in Manchester Massachusetts. A few years later, Gregory hired the Boston architect W.W. Brewster to build a brick house on the estate. Mr. Brewster was at the time also involved in the restoration of Gore Place in Waltham, and persuaded Gregory to donate them to Gore Place, where they can still be seen, in another of New England’s great Federal Houses.
Just for fun: A tiny rendition of the Pierce hall by Mrs. James Ward Thorne, part of her famous collection of miniature rooms at the Art Institute of Chicago.