Compare and contrast. It’s done by everyone; to make the best choice, find the best deal, take the best chance. Throughout any day, endless small decisions are made by the measure of these meters, without even conscious thought: which elevator will come the fastest, which sandwich for lunch, which movie to watch. These choices shape our tastes and styles, these little opinions, from the boots we like to how appealing we find the structure of a doorway. Eventually, such choices begin making larger appearances – where we go to college, where we live – and rarely are choices larger and put on greater display than when they form the creation of your home. In your home, your choices are reflected not just to the current outside world, but to your own family for generations. This is what makes the Wentworth Lear Historic Houses of Portsmouth, New Hampshire a unique and exemplary opportunity to look at the process of taste, culture, and choice in two houses built nearly three centuries ago, in striking contrast, side by side – and both with their stamp on our nation’s history.
Overlooking the a channel of the Piscataqua River, both homes were built prior to the Revolutionary War and exhibit beautiful design elements from the late-Georgian era, with strong influences of the distinctive American Colonial. Yet with its elaborate carvings, sumptuous paintings, and intricate details, it is the Wentworth-Gardner House that is considered one of the finest examples of its paradigm throughout the country.
The opulence of the Wentworth-Gardner House is no surprise when considering the first name of its title: Wentworth. As new Hampshire’s greatest dynasty – consisting of royal governors appointed by the king, merchants, landowners, and politicians – any home of the family had to meet the exacting standard of that celebrated name. Moreover, it wasn’t just a home but a gift, a wedding present from the family heiress Elizabeth Wentworth to her son and future scion, Thomas.
Standing tall for its time at two and a half stories, the Wentworth-Gardner house has a striking primary facade of snugly-fitted flat boards and corner quoining, intended to give the wooden materials an illusion of masonry. A hipped roof alone can catch the eye, but it’s the detailed geometric cornice and six pedimented dormers that create a breathtaking grandeur. While the five full bays of windows across the front of this wide exterior is inherently striking in its design, the impact of such natural light on the interior serves a dual purpose – highlighting the extensive carving, graceful archways, and spacious rooms within the house.
Built in 1750, the Tobias Lear House was built exactly ten years earlier than its adjacent partner, and stands at the same height. The Lear seems undoubtedly plainer than the Wentworth-Gardner at first glance, but it’s this comparison that contrasts their approaches toward appearance. Though without the candy-like affixments and airy tones of its neighbor, the Lear’s sophistication comes from its understated elegance and unusually pleasing proportions. Though the house’s front is wide enough for five windows, it instead balances three, directly matching the three lightly fluid dormers shining above. Instead of affecting a finer front, the main facade retains the clapboarding of the entire house, neatly joining a hip roof that mirrors the one semi-circular and three triangular pediments symmetrically. For the Lear, beauty was created by tasteful simplicity.
Both houses passed out of their families over the generations, eventually being acquired by the photographer and forerunning preservationist Wallace Nutting. An artist and antiquarian, Nutting was born in Massachusetts during the Civil War and went on to study at Philips Exeter and Harvard before traveling New England as an artist. In photography, he found an art form that could nurture his lifelong love of antiques – by setting up historical scenes, accurately furnished and designed, in historic homes. To this end, he bought the Wentworth-Gardner and Tobias Lear Houses, making thousands of images with models within their renovated interiors. As a historian, it was of constant importance that any renovations remained true to their original builds; as an artist, his dedication inadvertently saved both houses, and presented us with pictures of the houses stretching back a century. The popularity of his images, primarily in these two houses, inspired a resurgence of interest in American design and Colonial history, leading to the Colonial Revival Movement that embraced Neoclassical and Georgian styles in architecture still seen throughout homes and public buildings – such as schools, town halls, and monuments – today.
But this history is often overshadowed by the direct impact on and witnessing of our nation’s history in one particular owner – Tobias Lear himself. Born in Portsmouth in 1762, Tobias Lear V was a fifth-generation American in a family of wealthy merchants, and was seemingly on track to lead a normal New England life. Rather than join the Continental Army he attended Harvard, graduating in 1783 and returning home to Portsmouth to begin work as an apprentice. But within the year, an uncle recommended him for a job no one could possibly refuse: tutor to the grandchildren of and private secretary to George Washington. Almost immediately, he became right hand to the young nation’s new president; writing his letters, maintaining his accounts, dining with him every night. Though he followed Washington to New York City, and would eventually move farther south again to help develop the beginnings of the country’s capitol, Washington returned the favor – visiting Tobias Lear and his family in his own home, in Portsmouth. For his life of work, Washington appointed Lear a colonel, inviting him to live at Mount Vernon in his later years; Lear would be the one to hear his final words. After Washington’s death, Thomas Jefferson appointed Lear as a commercial agent to the Caribbean, where he would later brokering the peace that ended the First Barbary War.
In many ways, contrasting and comparing the history of the two houses becomes distracting from the houses themselves. During World War I, Nutting was forced by financial difficulties to sell them, and the Wentworth-Gardner’s famous facade earned it a place in the Metropolitan Museum of New York City’s collection. So appreciated was this facade that it was nearly moved to the city; but the Great Depression lead to its being left in place. Similarly, Lear’s history as a companion of our nation’s father led the house to remain intact – and luckily, through all these events, together. Between their beauty and their history, they became two of the first houses purchased and saved by the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, and then the National Register of Historic Places, before being opened as a museum under the joint name of The Wentworth Lear Historic Houses. Verona may have “two households, both alike in dignity,” but Portsmouth has two contrasting, yet equal, masterpieces of her own.