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Gift Could Restore Dana House in West Lebanon

  • Paint peels next to the historic marker on the exterior of the Dana House in Lebanon.

  • Dana House is said to be the oldest existing house in Lebanon, N.H., having been built in about 1765. The house now stands in West Lebanon, N.H., Sunday, April 15, 2018. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Dana House is said to be the oldest existing house in Lebanon, N.H., having been built in about 1765. The house now stands in West Lebanon, N.H., Sunday, April 15, 2018. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Monday, April 16, 2018

West Lebanon — A group of historians is hoping that a pending $25,000 donation from one of Lebanon’s most celebrated residents will kickstart renewed efforts to revitalize the Dana House, the city’s oldest standing building.

The City Council on Wednesday will decide whether to accept the donation from the late City Historian Robert Leavitt, who devoted much of his life to preserving the 18th century Cape.

Leavitt, who died in 2007, earmarked the money for the “restoration, maintenance and repair of the Dana House,” which dates back to 1765.

If the donation is approved, officials say the money could be used to finish a yearslong renovation effort, and potentially open more of the building to public use.

City commissions and the Lebanon Historical Society have envisioned the building as someday serving as a museum, meeting space or educational facility.

Most of the building, which hosts some summertime meetings, is unheated and often unused in winter.

“We’ve got a lot of construction that’s got to be done,” Robert Welsch, chairman of the Lebanon Heritage Commission, said in an interview last week. “It’s not a huge amount but a little bit here and a little there ... and it’s expensive because it’s historic preservation.”

The home, which initially was only 20-by-20 square feet, first was occupied by Jonathan Dana and his family, who moved to the Upper Valley from Lebanon, Conn., and became some of the city’s earliest settlers.

The building also was home to the 18th century medical practices of Dr. Ziba Hall, Lebanon’s first physician, as well as Dr. Phineas Parkhurst, who also owned a successful mill on the Mascoma River.

The city, which owns the Dana House, has commissioned a study of the house that is expected to be completed in coming months, Welsch said.

That investigation primarily is looking into how to remove lead paint from the home’s baseboards, door jambs and windowsills. Officials also hope to receive recommendations on completing other historic renovations, he said.

From there, Welsch said, the Heritage Commission would seek grant funding that could be matched with Leavitt’s donation for a restoration project.

“Saving the house was his idea,” Welsch said of the late historian. “He really wanted to make sure the earliest house in town survived.”

Leavitt worked hard to save the Dana House from demolition in the 1980s, when its then-owners wanted to make way for new apartments.

He persuaded the city to purchase the building for $15,000 in 1988, and move it from South Main Street to its current home next to the former Seminary Hill School on Elm Street West.

Through the nonprofit Historical Society, Leavitt donated upwards of $40,000 to help the city in its purchase of the house, move it and begin restoration efforts, Welsch said.

Between 1997 and 2004, the society and its benefactors, including Leavitt, donated roughly $21,000 to the city, according to a January letter from Historical Society Treasurer Mary Jane Thibodeau to Lebanon officials.

The $25,000 donation now being offered to the city, she wrote, is the last of Leavitt’s original bequest.

Along with a request that the money be used for restoration efforts, Leavitt also stated that the money “is not to pay for more expert opinions that may be offered in the future.”

“He wanted it to go strictly to repairing and restoring the Dana House,” City Historian Ed Ashey said on Sunday. “He didn’t want it used for other things, studies or whatever.”

Ashey, who also is curator of the nonprofit Historical Society, said he shares Leavitt’s concerns and wants to see the money put to use.

“It’s the oldest house that we know of that is still standing and being used,” Ashey said, adding Lebanon’s current residents should be able to better enjoy the landmark.

The Lebanon City Council will discuss the Dana House and Leavitt’s donation at 7 p.m. on Wednesday in City Hall.

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.