Portals of Past Elegance
Period tools and techniques in hand, John Schnitzler tends a most visible architectural legacy of Portsmouth, New Hampshire and the surrounding Seacoast, through the renovation of colonial door surrounds more than two centuries old.
“Some surrounds call for simple, small repairs,” explains the Maine-based carpenter who learned his trade under the tutelage of the legendary master carpenter, Norm Clark, at Portsmouth’s 10-acre maritime neighborhood museum, Strawbery Banke.
“Other door surrounds require major surgery when they have to be taken apart piece by piece, to be repaired, duplicated or replaced.” Schnitzler has salvaged at least two dozen door surrounds in Seacoast New Hampshire and southern Maine over the course of two decades.
Once a booming, urban seaport, Portsmouth and her legendary echelon of merchants, shipbuilders, lawyers and government figures – and before the American Revolution, her Royal Governors – required impressive dwellings to mirror their social standings in an unrivaled, exhilarating heyday of prosperity.
In the 18th century, Georgian and Federal embellishments, entirely the creation of English architects tapping Roman and Greek antiquities, appeared in all manner of interior and exterior architecture as well as furniture and decorative elements in the colonies, most prominently in door surrounds.
“The doorway of a house proclaimed to all the status and wealth of its occupants, who could afford the skills of superlative carvers and joiners working in tandem to accomplish the grandest entrance possible,” continues the bespectacled artisan with his trademark pencil perched between cap and ear.
With restoration, these artifacts endure as a testament to the outstanding caliber of trade dynasties working in Portsmouth almost two decades before the Revolutionary War.
Several trade families – the Dearings, the Whiddens and the Harts, to name just a few – sprang into action to fulfill the architectural appetites of the upper class. They also left their telltale marks inside – from interior columns and detailed trim and moldings to carved mantels and corner cupboards.
The Chase House, a refined Georgian (named for England’s King George III) era home, built in 1762, features two contrasting door surrounds; one fancy, one a little less so. Ebenezer Dearing, 1730 - 1791, lived for a time in the two-story residence and is credited with carving the finely executed Corinthian capitals and dense, ornate detailing in the front door surround as well as another of his calling cards, an elaborately carved mantel, festooned with a delicate, French-inspired rococo pattern of flowers, fruits and ribbons, adorning the formal parlor fireplace.
His son, William, 1759 - 1813, continued the family business, carving columns and other ornamental features all around the city. Together, their collective style survives in the capitals at Sherburne, Wentworth-Gardner, Governor Langdon and Moffatt-Ladd Houses, St. John’s Church, on several mantels and the oval carvings on the facade of the Portsmouth Athenaeum.
The signature on Dearing capital carvings is distinct, says Schnitzler: “A zig-zag dart or lightning bolt carved into the tops of capitals.”
Wallingford Hall, a merchant’s manse in Kennebunk, Maine, dated to 1807 and now a public marketplace, displays the quintessential Federal door surround and floor plan.
“The house stands in amazingly large scale,” he says, “and the rooms inside are huge, so the door surround must match that scale.” The entryway opens extra wide, with newfangled features – transom sidelights and an elliptical skylight.
Built in brick in 1818, on Pleasant Street, one of Portsmouth’s most opulent thoroughfares, the Treadwell-Jenness House is only one of several city residences commissioned by and named for the well-to-do merchant family.
The front door, which Schnitzler freed from a small hall addition and returned to its original position, represents a classic door surround with a half-circle, arched transom featuring a leaf or flute pattern drawn in glass with lead tracery.
These elements display a change in door surround styles ushering in the Federal period, a style christened in honor of the new federation of states that included new fluting, reeding and beading woodworking techniques as well as curved walls and curved staircases inside.
The new approach took hold in New England in 1785 and held sway through the 1820s, brought to the fore by next generation builders such as James Nutter, Jonathan Folsom and journeyman joiner, Shepard Frost, like the Dearings, Harts and Whiddens before them.
To restoration carpenters such as John Schnitzler, these enduring woodworks are prize relics, worthy of salvation and admiration.