It’s hard to imagine what 18th century builders, carvers, joiners and other craftsmen would say about the restoration of one of their most magnificent Portsmouth mansions in New Hampshire – the Henry Sherburne House.
Rather than renovating back to one point in time, ambitious restoration plan homeowner, Fred Lowell, enacted – with the assistance of Portsmouth builder, Carl Aichele, and architect, Steven McHenry – a custom approach, honoring not one or two distinct architectural eras, but three.
An historic decorative arts dealer from Hopkinton, New Hampshire, Lowell bought the regal home in the fall of 2002 and began comprehensive restorations the following summer.
He immediately recalls his first and lasting impression of the home: “I liked the architecture of the house; it’s as fine as any house in Portsmouth. We took almost a year to figure out how to do exactly the restoration we wanted.”
Split down the middle, figuratively, from roof to basement, one side reverted back to the mid-1700s, the Georgian period, while the other half was restored to 1840s Greek Revival era, a period which followed the Georgian and Federal styles. Entirely modern living quarters were installed at the rear of the house in a two-story ell.
The vision behind the extensive plans forged work and living quarters while paying homage to the home’s important history spanning more than two centuries.
The well-documented structure is listed on the National Register as a 1725 construction financed by Portsmouth merchant Henry Sherburne, though most architectural historians and preservationists today believe the home was built later in the 1760s as the residence of cabinetmaker, Richard Shortridge. Later, the lofty structure became home to merchant brothers, Samuel and Thomas Rice. Despite disagreement over the exact date of its manufacture, experts agree the home sparkles as a prime example of high-style Georgian architecture.
Lowell’s restoration of the elegant house comes as yet another lucky break for the building. It was saved from the wrecking ball of federal urban development in the late 1960s and carefully removed from a dense swath of tattered, doomed period homes in the North End along the Piscataqua River, to a ‘no demolition zone’ across the street dubbed The Hill. At this juncture, a new basement was added, some remodeling done and the once-palatial residence served as a senior citizen center for many years.
Touring the home in the midst of restoration, Lowell details his thinking behind how each decision was made with respect to dating rooms.
“We tried to capture the way the house evolved – not go to the way it looked when it was built. We went back to the last time the house had something to say, back to the 1840s when the homeowners left some of the rooms to its original, Georgian state and updated others to the latest, Greek Revival style.”
At one point in time, the house was split into a duplex to shelter two families, a fairly common practice in Portsmouth homes, even those with sterling pedigrees. At Sherburne House, Georgian features were left alone on one side and the newer update of Greek Revival elements were added to the other side. This footprint is the template Lowell followed in the main house.
To illustrate his point further, Lowell reveals a section of the foyer wall exposed to reveal three distinct building styles. “Taking apart the house means mending the facts and discovering things. We took off paneling in the foyer and we can see 18th century lathe and plaster and over that, Greek Revival lathe and plaster and over that, wallboard from the 1970s when the house was remodeled after its move.”
Completely revived, the Sherburne House encloses living quarters, a workshop, ample storage space and three galleries full of Queen Anne, Chippendale and Federal furnishings and accessories. “The house now boasts two historic periods, but with modern settings,” enthuses Lowell.
The lovingly restored front door surround, with its delicately carved Corinthian capitals, broken scroll or swan’s neck pediment centered with a finial-topped pedestal, announces to all the home’s early Georgian roots. The portal embellishment was removed, and painstakingly restored by Portsmouth master restoration carpenter, John Schnitzler, who took more than 200 hours to pull apart, repair or re-create the numerous pieces. The carved rosettes positioned prominently on the pediment, lost over time, were reproduced – hand-carved – by McHenry.
Past this splendid gateway, a fully resplendent front hall, dated to the Georgian era, opens to a central staircase.
A doorway on each side of the room testifies to both Georgian and Greek Revival aesthetics undertaken over time under one roof. “These two doorways are of different heights; the one on the right has a taller Greek Revival door, the other a shorter Georgian one.”
To the left, beyond the shorter door, a formal living room displays typical Georgian embellishments including pilaster with carved capital window and door treatments, mantel and crown moldings, all original to the house. The room behind it, perhaps another bedroom in the original era, later a kitchen when the house was split in two, is now restored to a Georgian age library.
A central staircase leading to a second floor continues the split of Georgian and Greek Revival floor plans. Above the formal living room, the Georgian style persists in a master bedroom featuring the original floor and fireplace with crown molding. An adjacent room will become a display room for late 18th and early 19th century glass and porcelain. “This was probably a second bedroom,” says Lowell.
The formal dining room, off the first floor entry foyer and to the right past the taller doorway, bears all the markers of a Greek Revival room. “Here we tried to create the modern 1840 room where the walls moved in and the windows were made deeper.” Above, on the second floor, a Greek Revival sitting room and bedroom matches rooms below in meticulous detail.
The two-story ell at the rear of the house was built in three sections, explains Lowell. “It began as a lean-to with roof, then changed to a shed with a roof and eventually was enlarged into a two-story addition.”
Here, the floor plan includes a kitchen and sun room on the first floor and a suite of bedrooms with vaulted ceilings on the second floor. An elevator was built in this part of the house to accommodate an elderly member of the household and the efficient movement of Lowell’s antiques.
The biggest surprise during renovations surfaced on the third floor, in attic space.
Here, on the ‘Georgian side’ of the house, a small finished room with original floor boards featured a small fireplace and was made into a servant’s quarters.
Other remodeling for this uppermost wing converted a room behind the servant’s quarters into a modern bathroom with woodwork matching the servant’s room, and at the rear of the house, a modern bedroom and bathroom. Precise in every detail and fit for its early occupants, the newly minted Sherburne House wears a cap of fresh, wooden shingles.