Wentworth–Coolidge Mansion is a 40-room clapboard house which was built as the home, offices and working farm of colonial Governor Benning Wentworth of New Hampshire. It is located on the water at 375 Little Harbor Road, about two miles southeast of the center of Portsmouth. It is one of the few royal governors' residences to survive almost unchanged. The site is a New Hampshire state park, declared a National Historic Landmark in 1968. Today, the New Hampshire Bureau of Historic Sites manages the site with the assistance of the Wentworth-Coolidge Commission, a group of volunteer civic and business leaders appointed by the Governor.
In 1741, the governorship of the province of New Hampshire was separated from that of the Province of Massachusetts Bay, and Benning Wentworth, son of former Lieutenant-Governor John Wentworth, was appointed its royal governor. He requested that the General Court erect a capitol in Portsmouth, but was refused.
In 1741 Wentworth rented a brick mansion in Portsmouth from his sister Sarah Wentworth Macpheadris Jaffrey, the house now known as the Warner House. That house effectually served as the governor's mansion for about seventeen years.
Wentworth petitioned the legislature to purchase the brick house as an official residence he termed a "Provincial House" in one of his petitions of April 26, 1753,:175–6 but their offering price was below the owner's asking price, and the purchase was never made.
The Warner House, where Benning Wentworth lived prior to moving to the house at Little Harbor
From the brick house Wentworth began making land grants to create new towns, starting in 1749. Absent a state house or capitol until 1762, the governor's council and the New Hampshire general assembly (legislature) met in various taverns around downtown Portsmouth. The most favored meeting place in the first half of the eighteenth century was Packer's Tavern on Pleasant Street at the corner of Court Street (burned in 1813). In the 1750s the government favored Horney's Tavern on the northwest corner of Court and Atkinson streets, where Aldrich Park is today (the tavern was demolished c. 1914). They occasionally met in other taverns. Not until 1762 was the new capitol or statehouse in the middle of Market Square ready for occupancy.
Meanwhile, since circa 1750 Wentworth's son Major John Wentworth had been assembling a rural property in the area on the outskirts of Portsmouth along a back channel of the Piscataqua River known as Little Harbor. It included a 100-acre (40 ha) working farm, and residential space.Acquisition of outlying country farms was characteristic of Portsmouth's urban mercantile elite.
The structure was made from existing buildings moved to the site and cobbled together with new sections, giving the house its eccentric asymmetrical appearance. Analysis shows it to be an assemblage of at least four, and possibly five, preexisting buildings.:175–6
Wentworth's waterside country seat seems to have been comfortable for residence by 1753, when in a petition to the legislature to purchase the in-town brick house, he explains that he has provided himself a house to move his furniture into so it would not be in the way of workmen who would remodel the brick house: "This being the most advantageous season to make Provisions for a Provincial House, I am hoping you will Embrace it, that neither myself or the Government may be put to any further inconvenience on that account. For this end, I have Provided a house to remove my furniture into, that the workmen may have no interruption from me if the Brick House should be thought most convenient."175–6
Wentworth gave up rental of the brick house in 1759, the presumed year of a permanent move to the Little Harbor mansion,[whence he likely continued to sign charters creating new towns across New Hampshire and Vermont.The practice of making land grants continued, presumably from the new house, until the crown imposed a moratorium in 1764.
Today, the house is approached via a roundabout land route, including through a stretch of forest, accentuating a sense of remoteness. However, this route was likely cleared farmland at the time. More significantly, the house is closer to Portsmouth via water than via the land route. Numerous in-town wharves and extant wharves at the Little Harbor mansion suggest a quick and easy water route. The main channel of the Piscataqua River, a tidal estuary, has notoriously fierce currents.Even a back-channel route passing behind the various islands that dot the southwest edges of the river have deceptively swift currents, including the small and seemingly still tidal harbor at which the house is situated, as illustrated in an announcement in the New Hampshire Gazette, May 12, 1758: "Last Tuesday a very likely young Negro Man, belonging to his Excellency our Governor, in wading into the Water, at Little Harbour, in order to bring a small Float ashore, was, by the strength of the Tide, carried off into deep Water, and so drowned."
Wentworth continued to own the property until his death in 1766, when it passed to his second wife, Martha Hilton. She subsequently married a distant British relation of Benning's, Michael Wentworth. Because of the direct property transfer from Governor to widow by will, the contents of the house were not probated or inventoried at the time of his death. Michael outlived Martha, and became heir to the property. The house was inventoried upon Michael's death in 1795. The contents of the house were sold at auction in 1806, with publicity that listed some items in the mansion. Together, these documents provide a glimpse of the contents, that may have been an undifferentiated mix of Michael's furnishings and items surviving from the governor's era.:9
The house and land then passed into the possession of John Wentworth, as identified on a map of 1812. This map was made by a British-trained cartographer then in Portsmouth, J. G. Hale. The map is titled "A Plan of Wentworth Farm in the Town of Portsmouth and State of New Hampshire Belonging to John Wentworth, Esq. 1812."[174
On this map, we see the house crowded against the point or angle of the harbor where it still stands, with a very large garden beside it. Behind this are acres of orchard, and behind these, where there is forest today, are larger acres identified as field, cow pasture, and calf pasture. The road is the same as today's, with the difference that it continued right to the water's edge, then turned toward the house, traversing a wharf parallel to the water that separated the harbor from the garden.
The Cushing family acquired the property in 1816, and operated it as a farm. By the 1840s they began showing the old mansion, one of America's first historic houses open to the public. This was a significant signal of what would become, toward the end of the century, a growing interest among Americans in their own history as represented in surviving historic buildings and the stories of people associated with them, as exemplified in the 1850s by efforts to save George Washington's home in Virginia.
A literary expression of this interest in the past occurred in 1863 when the New England poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow included in his Tales of a Wayside Inn a narrative poem about Governor Benning Wentworth's admiration of and marriage to his second wife, "The Poet's Tale: Lady Wentworth." Its portrayal of a long admiration and a sudden marriage is colorful and imaginative, but it is a literary work. Surely the governor and Anglican parson would not have acted in violation of publication of the banns of marriage as required in both Anglican law and local Calvinist law. As a vivid expression of the colonial revival, it entered local folklore, was repeated in various publications, and persists today, though without historical documentary evidence of the charming scene the poet seems to have invented.
Other expressions of the Colonial Revival impulse appear in the writings of a local elder named Charles W. Brewster, who wrote numerous reminiscence and history articles for the local paper in the 1850s. They were gathered and published in book form in 1859 and enjoyed enough popularity to be reissued in 1873, as Brewster's Rambles. Though riddled with error and inherited hearsay, they are also rich in accurate minutia and oral history. His tales are the source of some of the undocumented folklore about the house.
From the Cushing family, the property was purchased with about 15 acres (6.1 ha) in 1886 by John Templeman Coolidge III and his wife. They renovated, restored and expanded the mansion with the assistance of Sumner Appleton, founder of the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities. That society's interest in preserving colonial architecture was a characteristic expression of the Colonial Revival movement. The society acquired, preserved and opened a number of historic properties in the Piscataqua River area.
Coolidge was a Boston Brahmin, artist and antiquarian who used the property as a summer home. He had been schooled in Britain, educated at Harvard (class of 1879), and married Katharine Parkman (daughter of the American historian Francis Parkman).
Family wealth obviated any need for employment, so they spent the years 1879-1885 in Paris. While there, John studied art with Carolus-Duran, in whose classes he met and befriended John Singer Sargent. The following year, the Coolidges purchased the Wentworth mansion at Little Harbor as a summer retreat.
Photos from as late as 1937 show the house furnished with an assortment of antiques, arranged to satisfy late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century taste and sense of comfort,[characteristic of Colonial Revival interiors.
Coolidge's widow, his second wife, Mary Abigail Parsons Coolidge, donated the Wentworth–Coolidge Mansion to the state in 1954.