There are truly so many reasons to visit Portsmouth, NH – and now you can add Gov. John Langdon’s house to that list. It has all my favorite features of a historic home: incredibly detailed trim, famous guests, ties to the Revolutionary War and the birth of America, a grand staircase and (what would have been in the late 1700’s) a water view. Read on for more!
Let us start with this thought: John Langdon was a driven, successful and very very busy man. I’m exhausted by just researching and gathering out the details of his life!
- Born in 1741 to a well-to-do family in Portsmouth, NH, John Langdon was destined to do great things. He easily slipped into the family mercantile business, which is what put Portsmouth, NH on the map, and by the age of 22 was the Captain of ships crossing the Atlantic. Eventually he became his own boss, buying and selling goods himself and even building the very ships he sailed on. He became very wealthy, keeping low overheads and high profits by not only selling the goods after a voyage, but sold the goods and the ship as the cost of repairs after a journey were more expensive than building a whole new ship. Smarty.
- As you can imagine, his every day toils on the ocean were greatly impacted by the British trade restrictions & regulations.. This sparked his passion and sealed his revolutionary journey, as in 1773 he was elected to his first public role as the New Hampshire Committee of Correspondence, meant to help manage revolutionary communications between the twelve colonies. He led the first attack on a British military installation in 1774 in Portsmouth Harbor, and because of that was appointed to the Second Continental Congress.
- After a few years he was named Continental Agent of Prizes, otherwise known as a privateer AKA a legal pirate, which I find fascinating. Imagine the government appointing you to seek out wealthy foreign ships to overtake and steal their goods? Langdon was apparently very good at this, and must have loved every second, as he quickly amassed quite a fortune.
- Langdon must have spent at least sometime on land during his privateering days, as in 1777 he met Elizabeth Sherburne, who would become his wife and mother to two children, Eliza and John. Langdon had previously purchased land in 1775 for the purpose of building a house. The plot of land was at the top of a hill, which at the time overlooked the harbor, becoming a perfect place for Langdon to monitor his ships upon completion in 1784. During this time period, he built many ships, one of which was the Raleigh which is still featured today on the New Hampshire State Seal.
- John Langdon knew that the home would not only be a place of refuge for his family, but would also be host to the many social events that one climbing the political ladder would require. It is built in the traditional Georgian style, but included special features such as the oversized reception room, the elaborate Rococo carvings and the spectacular staircase featuring the King’s Board. He hired men who helped build his ships to create all the intricate trim details throughout the home, which at first seems odd, but after picturing all the beautiful figureheads you see featured on ships it seems genius.
- Langdon’s political life simply took off from there – he was elected to be the first president of the United States Senate and was the individual who personally confirmed to George Washington that he would in fact be the first President of the United States. Washington himself seemed to have spent a decent amount of time in Portsmouth, and most of that time there was spent at the Langdon residence. On November 3, 1789 Washington wrote in his journal “There are some good houses among which Col. Langdon’s may be esteemed the first”. That’s quite a compliment from quite a man!
- From there, he was elected the first Governor of New Hampshire and served in that role from 1805-1812. The only reason he left role of Governor of New Hampshire was because he was offered the role and served as Vice President to James Madison.
- Eventually, Langdon knew he needed to step away from politics and remained in his beautiful home until his death in 1819. His wife Elizabeth had passed away in 1813, so their surviving daughter Eliza lived there with her 9 children until 1833.
- After that, a pastor named Charles Burroughs lived in the house with his family for over 40 years, but in 1877 a descendant of Langdon’s bought the house back into the family. The Langdon family embarked on some renovations to remove the “victorian” from the home, introduced electricity & additional bathrooms and plumbing, and also added the back dining room, butlers pantry, kitchen and more. It was deeded to Historic New England in 1955, and today the Langdon house is open for tours to the public and also can be rented for special occasions.
I am a big fan of a statement staircase – and let me tell you, Governor John Langdon knew how to make a statement. The hand carved detail is simply overwhelming, I could have stood there for quite a while just admiring it. Similar to the fireplaces in the home, the staircase is carved wood meant to look like plaster, which is so impressive because wood is a much harder medium to create all those swirly whirly details in.
Like this staircase? Then you won’t want to miss the staircases from Hamilton House, Nichols House, Codman House or Lyman Estate – and especially check out Sarah Orne Jewett House (I KNEW that fabulous “floating” newel post looked familiar!!!)
While it’s hard to showcase in photos, this parlor was the largest of it’s kind and an extraordinary ask from Langdon to his builders. It runs the entire length of the left side of the house, requiring extra beams and supports, and they actually raised the ceiling height in this room to make it more grand (which is, funny enough, offset in the bedroom above that you have to step up into). It is said that his room was made specifically to host parties attended by George Washington, and so it did. The window trim, the fireplace, the marble – everything about this room screams luxury. It certainly was the place to be!
Dining Room & Butler’s Pantry
As I mentioned before, this room was added on in the early 1900’s, but is still stunning. It was quite a surprise during the tour, I wasn’t expecting to see such grandeur as we came around the corner. The cheery color, the beautiful china cabinets and all the natural light must have made for a gorgeous setting for any meal.
This room would have been used for smaller, more intimate social gatherings, such as inviting your good friend George Washington over for a casual afternoon tea. I’m simply obsessed with the dentil trim, the splashes of yellow and the insane 3D wooden fireplace featuring the King’s Board over the mantel. This was a wealthy way to flip the bird to King George at the time, as any lumber measuring over a certain size was considered the King’s and was supposed to be shipped back to England. Today we may look at the fireplace and think a painting or mirror must have hung there, but the actual focus was the sheer size of the single plan of wood – just imagine how huge that tree had to be! You can also see King’s Wood shown off in the entryway, along the left side of the staircase there is one solid HUGE board that runs the entire length of the stairs. You’ll start noticing them everywhere now!
The colors of this room reminded me so much of the second historic home I visited on this journey, and if you love yellow then you cannot miss the Otis House!
- Don’t forget to take a few moments to stroll around the backyard, the arbor is gorgeous!
- Aside from the architecture of the home itself, the furniture can’t be overlooked. Don’t miss the original 1793 harpsichord in the parlor!
- The rope window trim in the reception room is one of those tiny details that is easy to miss, but is truly so beautiful – this place is full of those types of details!
- This home is also part of the Black Heritage Trail. There truly is so much history imbedded into the walls of this home, and you can find out more about the important story of Mr. Siras Bruce here, who was a “domestic servant” of the Langdon family for over 20 years.
- If I’ve said it once, I’ll say it a million times – there is so.much.to.see.in.Portsmouth.NH. Here are some other historic homes in town (or nearby!) for you to visit – make a day of it!
- Jackson House: Oldest Wood-Frame House in New Hampshire
- The Oceanic Hotel & The Isles of Shoals: Serenity found Seven Miles off the New Hampshire & Maine Coast
- The Gilman Garrison House: 1709 Fort in Exeter, NH
- Rundlet-May House: A “Modern” 1808 Federal Home in Portsmouth, NH
- Rocky Hill Meeting House: A Home to Church Service, Town Meetings & 18th Century Graffiti
- The Dole-Little House: 1715 Newbury Home with ties to the Smithsonian