Saving a State Treasure
Teamwork restores Portsmouth’s Gilded-Age Carey Cottage at Creek Farm and gives it new purpose.
Photography by Geneve Hoffman of 16 Hoops LLC
In June 2019, Carey Cottage at Creek Farm, a historic property sitting on 35 acres along Sagamore Creek in Portsmouth, was slated to be torn down. The rambling structure, one of the few Gilded Age, shingle-style summer homes remaining on the New Hampshire Seacoast, stood unused and had fallen into disrepair. Its owner, the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests (SPNHF), had unsuccessfully sought a long-term tenant that could help preserve the property for conservation and public use; they had run out of options to keep Carey Cottage intact. The former owners of Creek Farm, Chet and Billie Noel, bequeathed their property to SPNHF and stipulated that it be used by nonprofit entities. The Portsmouth Advocates, a local preservation group led by Dr. Richard Candee that was affiliated with the Portsmouth Historical Society, and members of the greater Seacoast community had rallied to save the property once before, in 1996. They rallied once again, posting weekly updates on a “Save Carey Cottage” Facebook page and contacting state and national historic preservation organizations for assistance. But it appeared no one was interested in the property. “The challenge was to find a donor who would allow use of the property and keep the building,” says SPNHF President Jack Savage.
Then Eric Chinburg, president and CEO of Chinburg Properties in Newmarket and a long-time developer of former mill properties, had an idea. “When I learned the Forest Society planned to demolish the building, it broke my heart,” he says. “I worked with Jack to find some way to save the building.” Chinburg knew a local philanthropist who sought space
to house a new nonprofit incubator. They brainstormed with SPNHF and announced a plan to save Carey Cottage just weeks before demolition of the home was scheduled.
Now, four years later, Carey Cottage at Creek Farm is again a vital community resource. The nonprofit incubator,
GoodWork, is housed on the first floor along with six other nonprofit organizations; the second floor has been transformed into apartments preferenced for employees of area nonprofits. And the public can access Sagamore Creek and different parts of the property via walking trails as well as by kayak and canoe. “It was a complicated endeavor, but it was worth it,” Chinburg says.
A Grand Summer Home
Designed by Boston architect Alexander Wadsworth Longfellow Jr. in 1887-88, Carey Cottage was built as a summer home for Arthur Astor Carey and his family. The original gambrel-roofed structure had a high stone foundation and a broad porch overlooking the water. A gambrel-roofed extension was later added to the home’s eastern side; a guest wing was added to the house’s western side in the early 1890s. Reflecting Arthur Carey’s love of music, the eastern wing contains an elegant, Tudor-style music room with hand-carved linen-fold paneling and a Renaissance-era fresco painted by a student of Italian Renaissance painter Filippino Lippi.
The Careys were part of Portsmouth’s summer colony of prominent writers, artists, architects, lawyers and historians. President Theodore Roosevelt asked Arthur and his wife, Agnes, to host Russian and Japanese delegates who visited Portsmouth as part of the negotiations leading to the 1905 Treaty of Portsmouth, which ended the Russo-Japanese War. The Careys hosted the officials at social parties and gatherings, acting as citizen diplomats to forge communication between the two countries. Their diplomacy is credited with helping end the war and contributing to Roosevelt receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906.
The Careys owned Carey Cottage well into the 1950s. In 1957, new owners Chet and Billie Noel reconfigured the home’s bedrooms into apartments and enclosed part of the original open porch at the western end of the house. SPNHF received the property in 2000; after Billie Noel, who continued to live on the property, died, Carey Cottage served as a land base for Cornell University’s Shoals Marine Laboratory for 10 years. After the lab relocated in 2016, the cottage stood unoccupied.
Chinburg Properties was general contractor on the project and brought in JSA Design of Portsmouth as architects. Tracy Kozak, formerly of JSA and founder of ARCove Architects in Portsmouth, was lead architect (and a member of the Portsmouth Advocates). Kozak and colleague Erin Doody carefully reviewed historic drawings and photographs of Carey Cottage to determine how to best to restore the home and create new living space on the second floor. “Rehabilitating the building and bringing it up to code is really where we spent most of our budget,” Kozak says. Design and construction focused on: reinforcing Carey Cottage’s structural integrity; repairing, weatherproofing and restoring the building envelope, creating safe ways to exit in an emergency; decreasing the building’s overall energy usage; installing new electrical, heating and air-conditioning systems; making the building accessible; and installing new fire protection. Windows were restored rather than replaced, a cost-effective and historically accurate solution.
Though Creek Farm is a waterfront property, there was no water line in place, which was necessary for installing fire suppression systems. Installing a sprinkler system required installing a lengthy water line, connecting it to city services. “The home was on a well system, a quarter mile from the water main,” Kozak notes. “Once they got the line to the cottage, they discovered they had to work around solid ledge. So the connection is just outside the building.”
Another challenge was carefully concealing HVAC and electrical systems behind walls and ceilings to maintain the home’s historic features, especially in the Music Room. “The room has incredible craftsmanship,” says Kozak. “It’s the most important architectural space in the building.” The fresco over the Music Room fireplace as well as one on the sun porch were restored by local artisans; woodwork was preserved and wooden floors throughout the home were refinished. “Chinburg did a great job using concealed sprinkler heads and tucking ductwork away, so you don’t have soffits everywhere. It’s discreet,” says Kozak.
The original first-floor apartments were repurposed as office space for GoodWork as well as meeting and conference rooms with views over Sagamore Creek; smaller offices in the front of the building are occupied by six area nonprofit organizations. The Music Room, available now for community use, contains rollaway tables and chairs that can be tucked away for receptions and performances.
On the second floor, existing apartments were refreshed and reconfigured, with new kitchens and several featuring their original 1950s-era bathroom tile. “Each unit is unique in its own way,” says JSA’s Doody. “One looks out to the ocean, another has a deck overlooking Portsmouth Harbor, another has an original fireplace. They’re definitely not cookie-cutter.” Operable windows allow for fresh air and natural day light throughout the building. Outside, a clock tower and its original pendulum clock, with gold-colored Roman numerals and a unique sun ray design, was repaired and restored by David Graf, a tower clock restorer from Kittery, Maine.
Combining Conservation and Historic Priorities
Restoration of Creek Farm was completed in 2020. A masterplan for the property’s landscape and gardening is in place. SPNHF operates a small education center on the property, open seasonally, and runs a summer camp with another area nonprofit, The Gundalow Company, for children. GoodWork, together with Chinburg Properties, provides property management. GoodWork CEO Molly Hodgson and COO Maria Sillari (who once lived in one of Carey Cottage’s apartments) are eager to show off Carey Cottage to visitors interested in hosting meetings and retreats at Creek Farm. “The privilege of working here isn’t lost on us,” Hodgson says. “When you walk through the building in the morning and look out at Sagamore Creek, there’s an incredible peace and solitude. We’re very lucky to work here.”
Carey Cottage at Creek Farm is positioned to continue contributing to the unique fabric of Portsmouth and the Seacoast. “It really is an example of marrying conservation priorities with local and historic priorities,” says Savage.
Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests
New Hampshire Preservation Alliance
The New Hampshire Preservation Alliance was one of the historic preservation organizations recruited by The Portsmouth Advocates to advocate for Carey Cottage at Creek Farm. Founded in 1985, the Preservation Alliance helps communities and residents preserve and protect historic structures around New Hampshire. “We often work with local advocates who are trying to rescue or steward an older historic building,” says Executive Director Jennifer Goodman. The Preservation Alliance recognized GoodWork in 2021 with a Preservation Achievement Award for the rescue and adaptive use of Carey Cottage.
The Preservation Alliance hosts a number of programs and workshops—including its annual preservation conference happening on May 19 in Claremont—that are open to the general public and “help people doing preservation on the ground,” says Goodman. The organization’s preservation awards and Seven to Save, an annual list of New Hampshire properties worth preserving, draw attention to special places and landmarks. Recent initiatives include a research report completed in conjunction with similar historic preservation organizations in Maine, Vermont and New York about the status of preservation trades and employment.