Most towns have a Historical Society, a museum where the unique past of a specific place is celebrated and passed on to future generations. Whether they’re the smallest of villages or largest of cities, a town’s museum can be a genuine institution, collecting and protecting everything from family trees to farming practices. But while in most towns such societies and museums are often in a cherished Victorian home or a renovated library, as usual, Portsmouth’s dedication to its community goes far beyond with the thirty-nine separate historical edifices that create the truly outstanding Strawbery Banke Museum.
Established in 1957, what is now Strawbery Banke was nearly entirely lost to time. During this era, industrialization and the concept of urban development was at the forefront – and at the cost of anything else. Portsmouth’s neighborhood of Puddle Dock was seen as a rickety, rundown part of town, perfect for investors to scrap and revitalize as a suburb of modern buildings. What those investors – along with most residents of Portsmouth – hadn’t realized was that Puddle Dock was in fact one of the oldest parts of not only our town, but of colonial New England itself.
Although the pond that gave the Puddle Dock area its name has long been filled, the many homes and businesses that it once inspired still stand as a testament thanks to a woman named Dorothy Vaughn. While homes built in the 17th century are impressive in age, the neighborhood was especially notable for having homes built across the decades, providing a rich cross-section of history all in one place. By walking through Puddle Dock, you could slip through time. In an afternoon, you could visualize the expansion and evolution of a town and its people through that most personal and concrete example: their homes. In seeing how past generations once lived, their tastes changed, their needs varied, one can imagine that history coming to life.
Vaughn saw the value of this unusual place, and its possibilities as a living, breathing outdoor museum the likes of which had never been seen north of Plymouth Plantation and Williamsburg. In 1957, the Portsmouth librarian addressed the Rotary Club, exclaiming that every old house torn down and antique sold was a piece of their collective history that could never be replaced. Realizing her prescient point, the Club sprang to work raising money to save the buildings and transform them into the area and museum now known as Strawbery Banke.
While beautiful and educational for all, the neighborhood is particularly fascinating for architects and historians, as a prime visual example of how trends can progress over time in a specific place. Instead of seeing pieces by going from town to town or museum to museum, in Strawbery Banke they are all united to create an overarching experience of vibrant, living study. Moreover, many of the homes in the neighborhood are actually still in residential use, providing further knowledge of how old homes can be renovated in contemporary times.
Named for the oldest colonial settlement in New Hampshire, Strawbery Banke primarily exists in the form of its masterpiece, the ten fully-refurbished residences that can be visited and explored inside and out. Built across every conceivable range of aesthetic and era, these homes are completely open to the public, and allow a deeper understanding of Portsmouth’s wide historical spectrum. The other twenty-nine homes in the museum’s care are viewable from the exterior, and create a complete and walkable environment as a neighborhood district, with some existing as period-styled businesses and even excellent restaurants – though we at TMS Architects may be biased, having had the honor of redesigning and renovating the on-premise restaurant Mombo, now considered one of Portsmouth’s finest.
In walking this beautiful area, there is no time to truly experience the magic of Strawbery Banke like the winter holidays. Although every holiday of the year is celebrated in full style at the museum – eerie ghost walks in autumn, fairy houses and fireworks in summer – as the crown jewel of the Christmas Capitol of North America, Strawbery Banke does its part most exquisitely for Portsmouth. From Thanksgiving through New Year’s, the museum creates wonder with gorgeous candlelight strolls throughout the homes, costumed to the hilt with thousands antique, handmade decorations. Should the glowing nights get too chilly, indoor events are presented ranging from a Victorian Christmas party of piano music and punch, to a Russian-Jewish immigrant’s delicious Hanukkah dinner served as if at the turn of the century. During the day, the green where the pond once was is revitalized as an ice skating rink, allowing all ages to relive those joyous outdoor days enjoyed by so many generations.
Any historical museum is a gem and treasure for its town, relishing and caring for what makes it unique. But in true Portsmouth fashion, Strawbery Banke isn’t important for merely us, but for continuing to preserve the history of New England and the United States.