By Photographic Collections Manager James Smith
The history of the Rev. Samuel Langdon House is linked to two recent social media posts: Wentworth Cheswill (posted July 21) and the First Natonal grocery store (posted May 22). Serendipitously, these two social media posts somewhat bookend the Langdon house’s existence in Portsmouth.
The beginning can be traced to about 1749 when master housewright Hopestill Cheswill or Cheswell (also known as Hopestill March) constructed the house on Pleasant Street for the Rev. Samuel Langdon (1723-1797), minister of the Congregational Church (North Church). The house was later the parsonage of the Universalist Church. [Top photo: Unidentified people pose in front of the Rev. Samuel Langdon House, c. 1940s. Courtesy of the South Church Photograph Collection, P0028_055.]
Builder Hopestill Cheswill (b. abt 1712) was biracial, the son of an unidentified white woman and Richard Cheswill, a Black slave from Exeter who had purchased his own freedom. In fact, Richard had bought 20 acres of land in Newmarket in 1716, the earliest known New Hampshire deed that showed land ownership by a Black man, according to Black Portsmouth: Three Centuries of African-American Heritage by Mark J. Sammons and Valerie Cunningham. Between 1733 and 1749, Hopestill also purchased land. He amassed over 100 acres to farm and harvest wood for his carpentry trade. He also bought sawmill & stream privileges in Durham and part of the fall and mill privilege at Wadleigh Falls. In addition to the Langdon house, Hopestill built the Bell Tavern on Congress Street (non-extant) and is claimed to have also erected the John Paul Jones House (now owned by the Portsmouth Historical Society).
Hopestill and his white wife Catherine Keniston had only one child, Wentworth Cheswill who received a formal education at Dummer Academy (now the Governor’s Academy) in Newbury, MA. In December 1768, Hopestill sold Wentworth his property in Newmarket, including one lot over 100 acres, for 100 pounds and “the love, goodwill, and affection which I have and do bear” for him. A Revolutionary War veteran, Wentworth held several public offices in Newmarket, and according to George Mason University, his role as town constable in 1768 was the first time an African-American was elected to public office. [For more information on Wentworth Cheswill, see the July 21 social media post (link below).]
Photo looking up Pleasant Street at the Rev. Samuel Langdon House, c. 1930s. Courtesy of the South Church Photograph Collection, P0028_054.
In 1808, a new Universalist Church was built on Pleasant Street next door to the Langdon house. In 1896, the wooden church burned down, and the congregation rebuilt a new brick church (left of the fence in the photo above). In 1945, the Universalist Church formed a federation with the nearby Unitarian Church (known as the South Church) on State Street. The following year, the two congregations worshiped under the same roof while maintaining separate historical identifies of each parish. Unfortunately, on Jan. 11, 1947, a fire destroyed the brick Universalist Church, and fifteen days later, as a direct result of the fire, the Unitarian-Universalist Church of Portsmouth, NH, was formed merging both churches into one corporate body.
In 1951, the Universalist-Unitarian Church put the old church lot and the Langdon house on the market. The interested buyer was the First National Store, one of the largest supermarket chains in the country. Local residents, including neighbors William G. Wendell and Marion Lord, attempted to stop the sale by petitioning the city to change the zoning from commercial to residential. Many voiced concerns with the demolition of the old parsonage; however, the prospect of a modern supermarket with ample parking was appealing, and the sale went through. [For more information on First National, see the May 22 social media post (link below).]
Detail of the 1910 Portsmouth Sanborn Map. Red outline is the lot the Universalist-Unitarian Church sold to First National.
The fate of the Langdon house was left in jeopardy until March 10, 1952, when the Portsmouth Herald announced the Rev. Langdon House “won’t be lost when it is torn down.” A somewhat confusing quote when taken out of context, but there was good reason to celebrate that the building would indeed not be lost. Old Sturbridge Village of Sturbridge, MA, had purchased the Langdon house. Throughout the spring of 1952, the parsonage was painstakingly dismantled piece by piece. On May 28, 1952, the Portsmouth Herald ran a triptych showing the Langdon house demolition in stages under the caption: Going…Going…Gone!
Stages of dismantling the Rev. Samuel Langdon House taken from the Portsmouth Herald, May 28, 1952. Image courtesy of Newspaperarchive.com
After we shared the image of the First National in our weekly e-news (sign up at bottom of page), Richard Candee, Professor Emeritus of American and New England Studies at Boston University and Athenaeum Proprietor, shared insight as to why First National selected this location.
Candee wrote, “When I worked at Old Sturbridge Village, we often collaborated with a Prof. Cohen of the Clark University Geography Dept. He told me that he was hired by First National to recommend a site for the store. When Dorothy Vaughan and others decried the planned demolition of the Rev. Samuel Langdon House, one of only two Portsmouth houses actually documented as built by Hopestill Cheswill–the biracial house carpenter of Newmarket–Old Sturbridge Village acquired it and moved it for their administrative building.
Candee concluded, “Cohen’s story of how First National decided to build in Portsmouth–and where–speaks to the piecemeal nature of “preservation” before the National Historic Preservation act of 1966 and the challenges of Urban Renewal in an historic city well into the 1970s.”
Below are the two social media posts: Wentworth Cheswill and First National Store.
For more information on the MS039 South Church manuscript collection, click the button below to see the finding aid.