A Place in History: Haverhill Corner’s Wentworth-Brown House on ‘Seven to Save’ List

  • Tina Fuerschbach, of Haverhill, N.H., exits past a cantilever staircase in Haverhill, N.H., on Thursday, Oct. 25, 2018. (Valley News - August Frank) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • The Wentworth-Brown estate sits at the edge of the Village of Haverhill Corner on Thursday, Oct. 25, 2018. The building, that half of was constructed in 1804 and the other half earlier, has been identified by Haverhill Heritage Inc. as a historic resource to save. (Valley News - August Frank) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Tina Fuerschbach, of Haverhill, N.H., looks out the window from the kitchen of the Wentworth-Brown estate in Haverhill, N.H., on Thursday, Oct. 25, 2018. The building has fallen into disrepair over the years. (Valley News - August Frank) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • From left, Tina Fuerschbach, Gail Bishop, both of Haverhill Corner, N.H., and Keisha Luce, of Thetford, Vt., stand outside the Wentworth-Brown estate in Haverhill, N.H., on Thursday, Oct. 25, 2018. (Valley News - August Frank) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Attached to the main living quarters of the Wentworth-Brown estate, shown in Haverhill, N.H., on Thursday, Oct. 25, 2018, is a barn which remains in good condition structurally. (Valley News - August Frank) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Saturday, October 27, 2018

Haverhill Corner — For centuries, the Wentworth-Brown House was home to some of the area’s most distinguished residents. Now it has been identified as one of New Hampshire’s most important landmarks to preserve.

Named for its most recent longtime residents — James Good Brown, a doctor and minister who lived to age 107, and his wife, Valerie Wentworth Brown, a descendant of two colonial-era New Hampshire governors — the property is included on the New Hampshire Preservation Alliance’s 2018 “Seven to Save” list, which brings attention and, potentially, resources to the state’s threatened and endangered historic places. Ruggles Mine in Grafton also is on the list.

Haverhill Heritage Inc., a 20-year-old nonprofit that has been involved in other preservation efforts in the village, has developed a three-phase plan to protect the 7,700-square-foot building, which combines a small Georgian-style house and barn built in 1790 with a much larger, colonial-revival-era home attached to it in 1805.

Supporters of the preservation project see the undertaking as an opportunity to both save a special property and boost the fortunes of the village.

“We want not only to save the building, but benefit the community,” said Gail Bishop, a Haverhill Heritage board member. “Most of the time when I’m in places like Hanover or DHMC, when people ask me where I’m from, and I say the village of Haverhill Corner, they don’t know where it is. It’s a beautiful place, but it’s a forgotten place.”

Phase I of the project — stabilization of the exterior and completion of a feasibility study for potential future uses — could cost about $325,000, according to Haverhill Heritage I Executive Director Keisha Luce. Phases II and III, which include upgrading or replacing the building’s faulty or deteriorated utility systems and interior refurbishment, could cost about $150,000. So far, the project has received seed money from the New Hampshire Preservation Alliance and the National Trust, as well as a $150,000 challenge grant offered by the New Hampshire Land and Community Heritage Investment Program. Other strategies include a program that allows businesses to retrieve 75 percent of their contributions via tax incentives.

The home is currently owned by former state Sen. Bob Clegg and his wife, Priscilla, who are supporters of Haverhill Heritage and have been working “every step of the way” to transfer ownership, according to Luce.

According to Haverhill Heritage, the expansion of the building occurred when its original proprietor, Asa Boynton, donated the land that is now Haverhill Corner’s south common and repositioned the home. Boynton, a selectman and moderator who petitioned for the charter of Haverhill Academy, was only the first of many influential occupants.

Others included lawyer George Woodward, the grandson of Dartmouth College founder Eleazar Wheelock, lawyer and bank president Joseph Bell, and the Brown-Wentworth couple.

This is only the most recent project undertaken by Haverhill Heritage, which formed about 20 years ago to help protect the 60 buildings within the Haverhill Corner Historic District. In the mid-2000s, it helped convert the nearly condemned Alumni Hall on Court Street into the Court Street Arts performing center, and later helped save Pearson Hall, a one time Grafton County courthouse that also was part of Haverhill Academy until the latter shuttered in 1997.

Like some of the other stately buildings in the Haverhill Corner Historic District — as well as in historic villages throughout New Hampshire, especially those situated in poorer contemporary housing markets — the Wentworth Brown-House has fallen into disrepair, making preservation efforts the only realistic option for saving it from demolition.

“It’s emblematic of a bigger problem we’re seeing, which is old houses in weaker real estate markets needing attention because of deferred maintenance,” Andrew Cushing, a field service representative for the New Hampshire Preservation Alliance, said. “A lot of them have substantial structural issues, and when the private market doesn’t fix them, it’s great to see an organization like HHI say, ‘OK, we’ll try to get this done.’

“I’m glad they did, because Haverhill Corner is one of the most handsome villages in our state and the Wentworth-Brown House is very visible, facing Route 10. It tells a great story.”

Holly Young, a Bradford, Vt., resident and Court Street Arts volunteer, said losing the Wentworth Brown House would mean losing part of the fabric of the village.

“When it comes to the homes on either end of the green, they’re linchpins of the village,” Young said. “If you tear them down, you’re tearing down a piece of that.”

Dick Woodside, who lives on an adjacent property with his wife, Elaine, also said he considers the Wentworth Brown House’s preservation to be vital.

“Around the Upper Valley and New Hampshire, you cannot find a more perfect representation of 18th-century life as you can find here in Haverhill Corner,” Woodside said. “It would not be the same without the houses on the ends of the common.”

A Unique Building

A tour of the property makes a strong case for preserving a unique building.

The main entrance leads to a hallway featuring an impressive cantilevered staircase, each step supporting the weight of the next in a tiered fashion — something Luce said would be difficult to replicate.

“I’ve talked to an architect who said, ‘I don’t know how they did that,’ ” Luce said. “He said, ‘This place was built for magic.’ ”

All but one of five large bedrooms on the top floor of the “new” building — the one built in 1805 — habe their own bathroom, and many have Rumford fireplaces, defined by their tall, shallow pits. Nearly every room, including some of the bathrooms, has chandeliers.

“That was from J. Good Brown; he loved chandeliers,” Luce said of the doctor and minister who lived there from 1985 until he died in the house in 2008, seven years after the death of his wife.

The original Georgian structure contains a renovated kitchen, its front door boarded up as part of a modernization about 20 years ago. The room still contains a cooking fireplace, however, and a rear door that retains what Haverhill Heritage officials believe might be an original latch.

“A lot of the doors have those original latches,” said Christina Fuerschbach, a member of Haverhill Heritage’s board of directors and a member of the project’s steering committee. “They open with skeleton keys.”

A small, hardwood barn built as part of the original structure leads to a 32-foot connector passageway that contains a three-hole privy as well as remnants of a hen house where feathers remain.

“The chicken coop was a food source, and the privies are what they had for hygiene,” Luce said. “There was no indoor plumbing in 1790.”

The rear of the building features a large two-story barn erected around 1857. Like every other structure on the property, it’s connected to the rest of the house. “Everything is enclosed to guard against the winter climate,” Luce said.

The backyard features mature-growth evergreens and the markings of a garden last maintained by Valerie Wentworth, a one time Connecticut postmaster. Benning Wentworth, one of her ancestors, was the royal governor who allotted land grants to help establish the first settlements in Haverhill. Another, John Wentworth, signed the charter for Dartmouth College.

According to a book written by Brown entitled A Tribute to Valerie Wentworth, his wife nicknamed the property “Wintra’s Homestead,” “Wintra” appearing to be a British abbreviation for Wentworth.

The garden likely was first cultivated when the first addition was built in 1805.

“It’s an excellent example of a colonial revival garden,” Luce said. “It’s one of the reasons I love this neighborhood. You can walk down the street and think, ‘Wow, this is the same sort of experience someone would have had 200 years ago. That’s the reason we want this to survive.”

The Property’s Future

Haverhill Heritage imagines that a preserved and renovated Wentworth-Brown House could serve any number of uses, including a farm-to-table cooperative, a restaurant, art studios, technology center, co-working space or some combination of those options.

The group hopes such services could help transform Haverhill Corner from merely a historic district into a cultural destination to complement the already-popular Court Street Arts, which draws about 10,000 visitors per year for concerts and other functions.

Young, the Court Street Arts volunteer, would live to see the center’s many public program offerings, from ukulele lessons to watercolor painting sessions, one day be transferred to the Wentworth Brown House.

“It could be an incredible place for those types of classes,” she said. “It could really complement what is already happening at Alumni Hall.”

Aside from Court Street Arts, the village also draws couples who marry on its picturesque common. But there are few services available for those who visit.

“There are very limited facilities and amenities here,” Fuerschbach said. “Even just getting something to eat is difficult, unless you bring your own. Maybe in the future, (Wentworth Brown House) could provide that, or a place for weddings to be held inside.”

Before any public access is granted to the Wentworth Brown-House, its many deficiencies must be addressed. The property has been uninhabited for a decade, and the foundation and sills of the original 1790 structures have significantly deteriorated. The building lacks electricity, water and a heating system, and its plumbing and septic systems need work.

“Old homes that aren’t lived in go downhill in a hurry,” Luce said.

Haverhill Heritage’s plan calls for starting with stabilization of the exterior and completion of a feasibility study and redevelopment plan.

The organization is eager to have consultants prepare a feasibility study to determine which activities a repaired building might support.

“We have a lot of ideas, but we need some input from experts,” Bishop said. “We need people who can do some research and help us determine what will be sustainable.”

Haverhill Heritage Inc. can be reached at info@alumnihall.org or 603-989-5500. To donate to the Wentworth Brown Project, visit www.nhcdfa.org/electronic-pledge or mail check to: Haverhill Heritage Inc., PO Box 125, Haverhill, NH, 03765.

Jared Pendak can be reached at jpendak@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.