Transformation > Evolution of a Landmark

Stroll down Portsmouth’s narrow streets and history greets you at every turn, but perhaps not more so than at a unique complex of structures overlooking the South Mill Pond. The tale begins with a royal governor and continues as a remarkable exercise in senior living. In December 2006, major renovations of all three buildings of the Mark Wentworth Home began in an effort to better marry their historic pasts with the needs of seniors today and tomorrow.

Historic Beginnings

Dating from 1762, the Mark Wentworth Home is a true living landmark. Flanked by shade trees, the classic Georgian-style mansion is framed by a stately white fence. Elegant planters adorn its front gates, while a graceful fanlight marks the entryway.

The home was once the residence of the last American-born royal governor, John Wentworth (b. 1737). During his gubernatorial tenure, he created new highways, helped found Dartmouth College and built the Colonial statehouse in Portsmouth’s Market Square. The mansion that was his home while governor (from 1767 until 1775) never appealed to Wentworth’s luxurious tastes—he once referred to it as “that hut on Pleasant Street.” Consequently, he created a stunning “summer home” in Wolfeboro, overlooking four thousand acres of orchards, gardens, vineyards and woodlands. He planned to move the state’s capital from Concord to Wolfeboro, where he would reside in style, but American patriots had other plans. (The Wolfeboro estate burned in 1820; all that remains is a cellar hole and brass plaque noting its famous roots.)
In 1775, on the eve of the American Revolution, an armed Portsmouth mob descended on the governor’s home, demanding that Wentworth turn over an officer who had been hiding there. Wentworth did so but in the scuffle, guns went off and bullets tore holes through the wallpaper above the parlor mantle. The holes remain there to this day.

Shortly thereafter, Wentworth fled New Hampshire and later became royal governor of Nova Scotia, Canada. There, he was held in high esteem and, for a time, enjoyed the great mansion he had sought.

A New Chapter

In 1911, Susan Wentworth, one of John’s descendants, decided to turn the home into a health-care facility, as society of the day was increasingly concerned with the needs of the ill and elderly. She named the venture the Mark H. Wentworth Home for Chronic Invalids after her father, a doctor. Since then, the Mark Wentworth Home has managed a unique feat—functioning as a provider of health care and assisted living, while maintaining its identity and appearance as a National Historic Landmark.

Each room has a fireplace (although not used), and several have special characteristics. One has a mantle made from a decorative entryway (rejected by John Wentworth for his Wolfeboro home, the mantle found its way here in another guise), while another features an amazing carving of reversed dolphins above Italianate marble. Many fireplaces are framed with classic Delft tiles. In every room, glorious light shines through deep Georgian windows, some with window seats. The mansion is furnished with many antiques of the period, although only a few can be traced to Governor Wentworth.

Most striking is the historic wallpaper found in what was once the front parlor but is now the office of Mary Ellen Dunham, executive director. Original to the house, the paper was a bright flocked red but has darkened to a deep burgundy. Most unusual, it has a papiermâché border.

“The wallpaper is incredibly well preserved,” Dunham says. “We have no answers as to why it has held up so well. Richard Nylander of the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities is an authority on Colonial wallpaper, and this paper is featured in his book. Researchers have visited from Williamsburg [in Virginia] and many other museums to study the paper. They are amazed. There are only three places in America where you can see wallpaper like this.” Adding to the wallpaper’s mystique are the bullet holes in the section over the mantle—a constant reminder of that fateful night just before the Revolution.

Dunham shakes her head in wonder. “I can only imagine the conversations that went on in this room. After all, Governor Wentworth knew it was the beginning of the end. The seeds of the Revolution were sown here as well as in Boston.”

Art historians from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City visited during the summer of 2007 to examine the rare Delft tiles that adorn several fireplaces. Whenever experts arrive, they are astonished to find that the home is not a museum, but a living, breathing residence bustling with active seniors and staff.

Connecting the Centuries

In 1927, a brick addition called The Manor House was added to the Mark Wentworth Home, and in the 1980s, a large nursing-home wing was built. “In the 1980s, nursing homes were just that,” Dunham says. “They focused on providing medical and end-of-life care. Today, there has been a dramatic shift toward assisted living. Many seniors don’t need nursing 24/7; they just need some help. It might be assistance with a meal or laundry, to escape social isolation, to be reminded to take their medications or to have their health checked periodically. We provide that. In fact, many seniors improve when they come here. Suddenly, they have friends, they have things to do, they are better fed and on track with their meds. There is a reason to get up in the morning.”

The most recent renovations upgraded all the buildings, made them more visually blended and expanded usage. JSA Architects of Portsmouth was tapped to do the redesign, which included adding air conditioning and redoing all the wiring. Rooms were repainted in traditional colors, and wallpaper was redone in prints representative of the period, many with a Chinese theme.

“During the renovation, we were sensitive to the fact that this was a landmark,” says Kristopher Tiernan, JSA project manager. “We first walked the site with James Garvin, the state’s architect historian, who was very knowledgeable about the important features of the house. With the mansion, the primary goal was to minimize any changes, and mostly add creature comforts and safety elements. It’s a little jewel—you won’t find the situation of an historic home being used like this occurring today.”

JSA designer Sandra Hodge oversaw the renovations. “It was all about the details,” she says. “We made sure that the light fixtures matched the period. When we replaced the flooring in the mansion’s entryway, we went with a tile that looks like marble. Throughout the three buildings, we repeated the use of wainscoting, trim and other elements to unify the look and create a cohesive visual that echoed the mansion.”

Bringing Three Buildings Together

The most challenging aspect of the renovation was blending the three distinctly different structural styles of the mansion, The Manor House and the 1980s nursing home. The 1980s nursing home’s large size and contemporary style had never worked, so Tiernan sought ways to add visual interest and bring in a more historic feel.

“We broke up those long, bland lines by adding bay windows, gables along the roof line and other vertical elements,” he explains. “We gave the façade some depth, some push and pull and shadow areas that would dissolve that large scale. We also wanted each building to still speak autonomously yet blend, so the clapboard gables by Resources the windows of the nursing home are a language that connects the three structures.”

The Manor House, an historic structure in its own right, mostly needed “cleaning up,” as Tiernan put it. JSA worked to make the structure capable of handling a greater weight load, as well as transformed the downstairs lobby and the “warren of upstairs rooms” into wonderful, open living spaces.

Upon entering, visitors come into a courtyard-style space that bridges the new entry with the old and connects to the mansion. The fourth floor features a large dining room, multifunction room and numerous small public areas tucked into spaces here and there. Terraces and sunrooms provide lovely views of the gardens and mill pond.

“We wanted the renovation to be respectful of the historic neighborhood, and judging by the response, I think we achieved that,” says Tiernan.

Today, the Mark Wentworth Home carries on its unique purpose. Visitors to Dunham’s office still marvel at the wallpaper and the bullet holes. Upstairs, seniors head for the media room to enjoy a movie or make appointments at the hair salon. Farther down the hall, laughter erupts from a small dining room used for private parties. Downstairs, the governor’s old office is now a library. If he visited today, he’d also find a game room and an exercise room with active seniors working up a sweat. “

The hut on Pleasant Street” has been transformed. “This is now a place of hope,” Dunham says. “It’s a place where you keep on living and thriving, just as this house has.”