The fourth in a series of guest posts written for TMS Architects by historian J. Dennis Robinson.
Next year is the bicentennial of the Great Fire of Portsmouth in 1813. That event had a huge impact on Portsmouth architecture. Third time is the charm. The downtown area had been devastated twice before in 1802 and 1806. All three fires hit during Christmas week, burning hundreds of wooden buildings, large and small. It was only after the 1813 inferno that Portsmouth passed the “Brick Act” of 1814 “prohibiting the erection of wooden buildings of more than twelve feet high” in the downtown area. We’ve been imitating (perhaps obsessing over) that brick look downtown ever since.
After the Great Fire of 1813 the downtown landscape of one- and two-story wooden buildings was slowly replaced by well-constructed, fire-proof brick buildings pressed tightly together and rising to four stories. “There are immense buildings going forward,” one Portsmouth resident wrote in a letter in the early 1800s, “and the town is astonishingly altered.”
Architectural historian Richard Candee, author of the bible Building Portsmouth is the expert on the Brick Law that affects modern designers to this day. See his article: “Social Conflict and Urban Rebuilding: The Portsmouth, New Hampshire Brick Act of 1814.” Winterthur Portfolio 32, no. 2 & 3 (Summer/Autumn 1997):119-146.
Coincidentally, I’ve been out seeking support for a small book on the topic of Portsmouth fires. No takers yet. I stopped by the Portsmouth Fire Station on Court Street last week to chat with assistant fire chief Steve Achilles. What a surprise to find the 1870 steam engine Kearsarge parked back in the fire station. She’s been missing since 1920 when the city upgraded from the old horse drawn pumper. It has taken many decades and dollars, but now Kearsarge is back, purchased for under $100,000 by the Portsmouth Fire Department from funds given by a benefactor.
Kearsarge used to sit a few yards away in what is now the Baker-Wright Auto Electric Service Station in the old firehouse next door on Court Street. It was drawn by two horses and Steve gave me a detailed explanation about how the machine worked. It is a steam punk dream of gauges, gears, and flywheels with ornate metal containers of copper and nickel and wood. It must have been a bone jarring ride with those metal wheels over the cobblestone city streets. The fire department needs another $50K to fully restore this beautiful piece of machinery.
It’s a train, really, a portable coal-fired steam locomotive used to pump water onto a blaze. And Portsmouth has had her share of fires, many documented in Steve Achilles’ photo book Portsmouth Firefighting from Arcadia Publishing. I was knocked out by the sheer mechanical beauty of the partially restored Kearsage, one of only a handful of surviving engines built by the Amoskeag company of Manchester.
Those early city fires created a lot of work for architects in this town. And Portsmouth firefighters have saved a lot of modern architecture from destruction. I see a synergy building here that I hope is not too alarming. Perhaps local architects might hop up, slide down that shiny metal pole, and jump onto the upcoming effort to restore this beautiful artifact of historic Portsmouth.
J. Dennis Robinson is editor and owner of the popular Web site SeacoastNH.com and author of books about history. His latest books are UNDER THE ISLES OF SHOALS about archaeology and AMERICA’S PRIVATEER about the War of 1812.