Benning Wentworth did things his own way and he did them in a large way. His house, the Wentworth-Coolidge Mansion, is an eccentric collection of angles, gables and ells–what you might expect from someone who annexed Vermont and married his maid at a dinner party.
King George II appointed Wentworth royal governor of the Province of New Hampshire in 1741, and he kept the job for 26 years. During that time he conducted official business from the Portsmouth mansion, which included a special room for Governor’s Council meetings. At the close of those meetings, Wentworth invited his councilors to drink to the king’s health. By the end of the evening, those who weren’t sleeping under the table could sleep in one of the mansion’s 52 rooms.
Wentworth wasn’t above using his office to finance his aristocratic lifestyle. And he liked to reward his friends, punish his enemies and marry whomever he pleased.
He had the Wentworth family’s penchant for nepotism. His father, John, had served as lieutenant governor of New Hampshire before him, when it still belonged to Massachusetts. His nephew, John II, served as governor after him.
Though no colonial governor served longer than Benning Wentworth, he did not win the esteem of New Hampshire Assemblymen. They tried to kick him out of office several times. His offenses included putting too many relatives in political jobs, abusing his office as surveyor of the king’s woods and getting rich by charging fees in exchange for land grants and pocketing some for himself. All true.
As governor, he did have the right to reserve pine trees for himself (the rest went to the British Royal Navy). He could also grant people tracts of undeveloped land.
On Jan. 3, 1749, he issued the first of 135 land grants west of the Connecticut River. He called it Bennington. Unfortunately for the settlers on the land, New York also issued land grants for the same territory. Decades later, the settlers themselves resolved the land dispute, though not without bloodshed. They declared Vermont an independent republic.
Wentworth men were said to have peculiar tastes in women. Benning once fell for a lower-class Portsmouth woman, who spurned him for a shipwright. He was said to have had the man impressed into the service of the British Navy for seven years.
Then, as a widowed 64-year-old he stunned his dinner guests by calling his pretty 23-year-old maid to the table. He then ordered the minister he’d invited to marry them right then and there. And so the portly, gout-beset Wentworth tied the knot with his servant right there in the midst of the high society of the colony.
The wedding was one of the most storied events in New Hampshire history. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow turned it into a poem called Lady Wentworth.
One reason Benning Wentworth married the much younger Martha was that he wanted an heir. Martha failed to produce one by the time he died 10 years later. She inherited his estate, and married another Wentworth, Michael, though no relation to Benning. They went through Benning’s fortune in high style, once hosting George Washington at the house during his tour of the Eastern Seaboard.
The Wentworth’s kept the house until 1816. Then in 1883, artist J. Templeman Coolidge bought the property as a summer home. He restored the house, and made some additions to it.
Coolidge liked to live large, too. Guests to the home included John Singer Sargent, historian Francis Parkman and Isabella Stewart Gardner, Boston’s extravagant art collector.
In 1954, Coolidge’s widow donated the building to the State of New Hampshire.
You have to know where to look to find the Wentworth-Coolidge Mansion. Unlike most historic trophy houses, it’s in a secluded part of the city, down a winding lane lined with stone walls. A handful of houses have been built on the original estate, but trees and shrubbery screen them from the mansion.
The 40-room house (it once had 52 rooms) sits on a rolling lawn that slopes down to the river. The lilac bushes that surround the building were planted by Benning Wentworth. They’re said to be offshoots of the first lilacs brought to America.
Benning Wentworth began living in the house after the king appointed him governor. When he moved in, framers had already joined together a hodge-podge of separate structures. Wentworth in 1750 added another section befitting a royal governor. He hired a carpenter to live in the house while he worked; the carpenter stayed five years.
He added a formal dining room, a Council Chamber wing, a parlor, a billiard room (but no billiard table) and card rooms. Inside, the size and finish of the rooms clearly identify their purpose, which mitigates house’s chaotic structure. It has a formal entertaining area, family rooms and work rooms for servants.
Wentworth-Coolidge Mansion Oddities
The Wentworth-Coolidge mansion has several unusual features for a colonial dwelling. One of those, a stewing kitchen, probably resulted from Wentworth’s French chef. A tavern keeper named John King, he visited Wentworth three times a week to shave him, dress his hair and cook special meals. King disappeared after he shot a deputy sheriff.
The house once had a flat deck with a roof made of pine tar and gravel, highly unusual for the era. Wentworth could sunbathe on the roof to relieve his gout symptoms, while enjoying the view of the Piscataqua River and his formal gardens.
Also unusual: three small gable-roofed additions, called outshots, that look like afterthoughts. They probably served as vestibules.
The house has a huge cellar extending under most of the house, said to contain stalls for 30 horses. Not likely, according to conservator James Garvin.
The Governor’s Council still meets at the mansion occasionally – in summertime, it isn’t heated. There aren’t many furnishings in the house, though.
Around the Wentworth-Coolidge Mansion
History lovers can’t help but love Portsmouth, an eminently walkable small city full of beautifully restored Federal-style buildings. George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette visited Portsmouth, John Paul Jones lived there and Daniel Webster practiced law on Market Square.
The city has retained its historic character thanks to preservation that began in the 1960s with the efforts of librarian Dorothy Vaughan.
The Wentworth-Coolidge Mansion is just one of a dozen or so historic houses open to the public. Downtown alone has 35 previous listings on the National Register and five National Historic Landmarks. Portsmouth also has the Strawbery Banke outdoor museum, featuring more than 37 restored buildings built between the 17th and 19th centuries in the Colonial, Georgian, and Federal style architectures.
Retail and restaurants are alive and well in Portsmouth, so even non-history lovers will find much to enjoy and experience in the 400-year-old city on the seacoast.
Five Things You’ll Remember
Before he won his appointment as royal governor, Wentworth engaged in merchant shipping, mostly to Spain. But he didn’t put the enormous anchor in the front yard. The best guess is that Coolidge bought it at salvage and moved it there as a giant lawn ornament. It supposedly came from the ship of the line Ohio. For mariners, the anchor served as an aid to navigation, letting them know they’re entering New Hampshire’s only seaport.
The Fireplace in the Governor’s Council Chamber
The chimneypiece supposedly took a ship’s carpenter 13 months to finish. It’s been called the most elaborate carved mantelshelf in the American colonies. It has marble facing, female relief figures, floral swags, scroll bracket and medallions of shell and Tudor rose.
Only the most aristocratic houses had wallpaper back in colonial times, so of course Benning Wentworth had to decorate his walls with it. The bright red wallpaper in the parlor reflects his outsize personality. Or perhaps his need for attention.
The Spy Closet
The Governor’s office and a clerk’s room adjoins the parlor. The clerk’s room has a closet with a little window. Supposedly, Wentworth spied through the window to see who sat in the waiting room. Garvin, however, debunks that legend. “In reality, this is one of several small windows that convey a bit of light into otherwise dark areas within the core of the dwelling—an important aid at a time when the only available artificial light would have been a candle, wax taper, or burning splint,” he wrote. Besides, Wentworth was too fat to fit into the room.
The Wentworth-Coolidge Mansion Grounds
Wentworth’s formal gardens have given way to grass, but visitors can still enjoy the lovely setting. The river flows by the front of the house, past the wooded shore opposite. In the distance, the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard’s cranes and towers poke into the sky. A hiking trail leads around the property.
The mansion is open daily to the public from Memorial Day through October. The grounds are open year-round.
Images: Governor’s Council Chamber By Markjsammons – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=81958393. Family parlor with harpsichord By Markjsammons – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=81958400. Side view of the mansion By Markjsammons – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=81958412.