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John Paul Jones & Governor Langdon

Governor John Langdon House - Portsmouth NH

This tour is one of the three “must do” tours for Portsmouth. It incorporates two of the historic house museums – the John Paul Jones House and Governor John Langdon House – along with a few other key spots.

One of particular importance is perhaps the most important and impressive on the Black Heritage Trail – the African Burying Ground Memorial.

Another reminder to plan ahead assuming you want to tour inside one or both of the historic houses (particularly the Governor John Langdon House) – hours are seasonal and can vary. I unfortunately missed both on my recent visit, and will certainly be back to remedy that.

As with the other downtown tours, this lands you back near Market Square where you can fortify at one of the local eateries or watering holes before your next excursion.

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Portsmouth Historical Society

Portsmouth Historical Society

The Portsmouth Historical Society, founded in 1917, is dedicated to preserving, promoting, and sharing the rich history and heritage of Portsmouth, playing a vital role in safeguarding the city’s historical artifacts, documents, and stories.

The Discover Portsmouth Center, located at the corner of Islington and Middle Street, houses the society’s headquarters and visitor center. It features rotating exhibits that delve into various aspects of Portsmouth’s history, culture, and arts. The center also offers a 90 minute daily historical guided walking tour if you prefer, and hosts educational programs, lectures, and workshops for all ages.

John Paul Jones House

John Paul Jones House

A one minute walk from the Discover Portsmouth Center is the Georgian-style John Paul Jones House, where Scottish-American John Paul Jones, a celebrated naval commander of the Revolutionary War, lived for a short time while in Portsmouth. Built in 1758 for sea captain and merchant Gregory Purcell, it is now operated by the Portsmouth Historical Society as a museum focused on Jones’ life and the Revolutionary War era.

African Burying Ground

African Burying Ground

Unveiled in 2015, the African Burying Ground Memorial, located at Chestnut Street between Court and State Streets, stands as a solemn tribute to the enslaved and free African individuals who lived and died in the city during the colonial era.

The burial ground was largely forgotten and eventually paved over as the city expanded in the late 1700s and 1800s. Rediscovered in 2003 during a construction project, it sparked a community effort to honor and memorialize the lives and struggles of those buried there.

The memorial’s design incorporates both artistic and symbolic elements. At the entry to the park, a granite upright slab separates two life sized sculptures, one of a woman, representing Mother Africa and the other a man, portraying a slave, facing east toward Africa. Though they reach around the slab towards each other, they don’t touch, representing the separation of slaves from their home country and communities.

At the opposite end of the plaza, connected by a walkway with a ribbon of poetry and quotations, is an underground burial vault that contains the re-interred remains of those who were buried here. A grouping of stylized figures representing the community of Portsmouth partially circles the vault, paying homage. The burial vault is marked with a West African Sankofa symbol meaning “Return and get It – Learn from the past”. Surrounding the vault and these figures is a fence with intricate patterns inspired by African textiles.

While serving as a sad reminder that slavery was not confined to the South, it also honors the lasting contributions of Portsmouth’s African-descended community. The park is a powerful and contemplative space designed to provide a place for reflection, remembrance, and healing. It’s a place to pause and reflect on the lives lost and the ongoing struggle for equality and justice.

Ruth Blay Mural

Ruth Blay Mural

Portsmouth’s first mural (many more planned), is of the last woman hanged in New Hampshire in 1768. Teacher and seamstress Ruth Blay’s crime was being an unwed mother. Or more specifically, concealing the body of her stillborn child, whom she had wrapped in a quilt and buried under the floorboards of a barn in shame and desperation.

Sentenced by an all male jury, she never revealed the father’s name.

After enduring five months in the Portsmouth jail, falling ill twice in its bleak conditions, she was driven by a horse cart to the highest point on South Street, now South Cemetery. In a public spectacle witnessed by thousands of Portsmouth citizens, the executioner placed a noose around her neck, and withdrew the cart from under her feet. This “short drop” method of hanging did not normally break the prisoner’s neck and caused a slow death by strangulation.

The mural is an important reminder that while we’ve made progress, there are still issues with women’s rights and equality, there is still abuse and sexual harassment, and there are still women subjugated and suffering around the world.

Learn more about the tragedy of Ruth Blay by picking up Hanging Ruth Blay: An Eighteenth-Century New Hampshire Tragedy at your local bookstore. Written by author and University of Pennsylvania Professor Emeritus Carolyn Marvin.

Vigilance Memorial

Vigilance Memorial

The Vigilance Memorial outside Portsmouth’s Central Fire Station on Court Street honors the sacrifices and heroism of Portsmouth’s firefighters. 

The impressive brick fountain with two 400 pound bronze firefighters representing the past and present was designed by sculptor Birch. You may have seen other of Birch’s designs around New Hampshire including the “Pollyanna” sculpture in Littleton.

Governor John Langdon House

Governor John Langdon House

The Governor John Langdon House is an impressive Georgian mansion, built in 1784 by (drum roll) John Langdon. Does that name ring a bell? It should. Through his career, Langdon was a ship captain, merchant, privateer, shipbuilder, Revolutionary War leader, speaker of the New Hampshire House of Representatives, signer of the United States Constitution, the first president of the United States Senate and the first (and three-term) governor of New Hampshire. During this illustrious career, he turned down an appointment by President Thomas Jefferson to serve as secretary of the Navy, and an offer to serve as vice president to James Madison. Overachiever extraordinaire. Now you know.

The grand reception rooms in his magnificent mansion sport elaborate Rococo wood carvings among their other notable features of the era. Period furnishings and decor throughout the house bring 18th century upper crust elegance to life. You can imagine yourself in your petticoated silk day dress, fanning yourself as you sip tea out of porcelain cups after an afternoon stroll in the beautifully landscaped gardens. Later, you float up the staircase with its intricately carved balusters to retire to an impeccably furnished boudoir.

Would you trade it for modern conveniences and the right to vote? You don’t have to answer.

The house is operated by Historic New England and offers guided tours, and as you can imagine, is a popular venue for events and weddings.

South Church

South Church

One of the earliest examples of Classical Revival architecture in New England, South Church is a Unitarian Universalist Congregation. Formed in 1713 after splitting with what is now North Church, it became Unitarian in 1819, as Unitarianism was emerging as a denomination in the United States. In the mid 20th century it was joined by Portsmouth’s Universalist congregation when their church was destroyed by fire.

The building is constructed with ashlar granite blocks quarried in Rockport, Massachusetts.

The Music Hall

Music Hall

Opened in 1878 as a Vaudeville theater in Portsmouth’s more raucous days, The Music Hall has been entertaining audiences and enhancing the cultural scene in Portsmouth ever since. Saved from obscurity and the wrecking ball on more than one occasion, the plucky theater has held its own, evolving with the times and earning its permanent place in the heart of Portsmouth and its residents.

With many renovations and updates over the years, the theater now boasts two performing spaces, the Historic Theater and The Music Hall Lounge.

The Historic Theater is a feast for the eyes, with its fanciful proscenium arch and opera boxes, an elaborate domed ceiling with a crystal chandelier, and horseshoe balcony. The lobby is a marvel of imagination. In 2006, the cramped and outdated lobby was more than doubled in size by removing 700 cubic yards of ledge. It was then transformed into a “fantasy forest” of cast bronze trees, branches and vines, gilded Corinthian columns and elegant velvet settees.

Around the corner from the theater, is a 116-seat cabaret nightclub, renovated and renamed in 2022 to The Music Hall Lounge, previously the Loft. This is a more intimate space for smaller performances.

The Music Hall’s programming encompasses a wide variety of genres and artistic styles, showcasing both local talent and world-renowned artists. From music legends to emerging performers, from thought-provoking plays to captivating film screenings, the venue offers a diverse and enriching lineup of events throughout the year.

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