Langdon House History
John Langdon purchased parcels of land on the outskirts of the colonial city of Portsmouth as early as 1775 with the clear intention of building a house. Construction of the house finally began in 1784 and contains important examples of the American Georgian style. John Langdon, a Portsmouth native, became politically active during the American Revolution. He was born in 1741 to a well-established Portsmouth family and went directly into the mercantile trade as a young man, skipping endeavors that many of his peers pursued, like a Harvard education. He learned the mercantile trade in the Portsmouth counting house of Daniel Rindge and by the age of twenty-two he was captain of his employer’s ship, navigating Atlantic trade routes. It wasn’t long before he bought and sold his own goods, and soon after that his own ship. John Langdon’s success could have been a result of his method of selling the lot – goods, and ship too – before returning to the colonies. He kept costs low and profits high.
Like many in his position, he suffered from British trade restrictions, which sparked his revolutionary fate. In 1773 he was elected to the New Hampshire Committee of Correspondence, a group formed to communicate with the other twelve colonies, especially on the matter of British rule. In December 1774, Langdon helped lead a raid on the Fort of William and Mary at the head of Portsmouth Harbor. This raid was the first armed attack on a British military installation. By relieving the British of their ammunition stored at the fort, Langdon became an important revolutionary figure. He was appointed as one of two New Hampshire delegates to the Second Continental Congress. He resigned his post in 1776 to accept the appointment of Continental Agent of Prizes and became a privateer, an agent authorized by one’s country to attack foreign ships. In this position he amassed a great fortune. Langdon built ships, including the Raleigh, Ranger, and America, the latter two captained by John Paul Jones, for the Continental Navy. The Raleigh is featured on the New Hampshire State Seal. During the Revolutionary War, Langdon captained his own independent military company which included Daniel Hart, who became a master joiner of the Pleasant Street house. From 1776–1782, John Langdon served as speaker of the New Hampshire House of Representatives.
In 1777, John Langdon married Elizabeth (Betsy) Sherburne. They had two children, Elizabeth (Eliza) and John, who died as an infant. Betsy was nearly twenty years his junior and the cousin of his brother Woodbury’s wife.
During the time of the construction of the Pleasant Street house, John Langdon was elected president of New Hampshire. In 1783, he was elected a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, helping to develop the newly formed United States of America. In 1788, he worked for New Hampshire to be the ninth and deciding state to ratify the Constitution. He was elected to be the first president of the United States Senate, the highest ranking office in the nation until he informed George Washington of his election to the presidency. Langdon continued as a state senator until 1801, the year he turned down an appointment by President Thomas Jefferson to serve as secretary of the Navy. Langdon was elected governor of New Hampshire from 1805-09 and 1810-1812. Although he began his political career as a Federalist, his decision to change to a Jeffersonian Republican marked his, and New Hampshire’s, desire to adhere to democratic ideals. In 1812, just seven years before his death, Langdon again turned down a national post, this time an offer to serve as vice president to James Madison.
The house he built for his small family and to declare his status in the community is a traditional Georgian-style home, with a few special features. The plan is recognizable from many other regional homes built in the latter half of the eighteenth century, but built on a larger and more impressive scale. The left parlor runs the entire length of the house and was surely used as a public reception room by Langdon during his three terms as governor of New Hampshire. The elaborate Rococo carvings found in both front rooms are unusual and recognized as some of the best work done north of Boston. The carvings in the parlors, and possibly the front portico, are based on Abraham Swan’s The British Architect and A Collection of Designs in Architecture, respectively. Daniel Hart, a soldier alongside John Langdon during the revolution, and Michael Whidden III, are master joiner and carver of the home. Work on the house, particularly the staircase which features the traditional triplet of Portsmouth balusters, is attributed to Ebenezer Clifford, a master joiner who worked on many Piscataqua homes, including the Rundlet-May House and the Ebenezer Dearing House. The estate also includes two brick lodges, possibly built during the main house construction, that appear on the Hales 1812 map of Portsmouth. The lodge to the left of the main house was used in 1816 by lawyer William Richardson as an office.
During George Washington’s visit to Portsmouth in 1789, he noted in his diary many visits to the Langdon House. Although he stayed in a nearby tavern, he took tea and enjoyed meals and other social events in the Langdon parlors. On November 3, Washington writes of Portsmouth, “there are some good houses, among which Col. Langdon’s may be esteemed the first.”
John Langdon remained in his elaborate home until his death in 1819. His wife pre-deceased him in 1813. His one surviving child, Eliza, now Eliza Langdon Elwyn, returned to the home after her husband's death until 1833. Presumably, at least some of her nine children resided in the house with her.
During the occupation of the Langdon family, the house at 143 Pleasant Street was a social center and meeting place for the New Hampshire political elite.
No significant records appear for the occupation of naval officer Joseph Wilson, who owned and lived in the house for just three years.
Charles Burroughs, rector of St. John’s Church, and his wife Anne Rindge Pierce Burroughs, lived in the house for more than forty years. Reverend Burroughs was rector of St. John’s Church for nearly fifty years. St. John’s Church, perched above the Piscataqua River on Bowe Street, had a very active congregation and thrived under Burroughs' leadership. The Langdon House remained a social center during the Burroughs occupancy.
In the 1850s, the southeast corner of the house burned and was rebuilt in the Greek Revival style. A bay window was added on the first floor, in what was commonly used as a morning room, supported by an overhang that resembles a pulpit. The second floor chamber was designed with a small wrought-iron balcony off the south window.
Charles Burroughs died in 1868 and his wife Anne stayed on in the house until her own death in 1877.
In 1877, a descendant of John Langdon’s brother Woodbury, another Woodbury Langdon, purchased his uncle's house as a home for his mother Frances Bassett. Woodbury, named for his great-grandfather, a New York merchant, was born in Portsmouth. He began a career in Boston at the dry goods firm of Frothingham and Company before becoming a managing partner in the New York offices. In 1870, upon the death of the senior partner of the firm, it became Joy, Langdon and Company under Langdon’s directive. Woodbury Langdon sat on many New York boards, such as the Central National Bank and New York Life Insurance. He married Elizabeth Elwyn Langdon, great-granddaughter of John Langdon and Woodbury’s third cousin, in September of 1896. Upon his mother Mrs. Frances Bassett's death in 1902, the house reverted back to Woodbury. In 1904, he deeded it to his wife, Elizabeth. Woodbury Langdon died in 1921.
Elizabeth and Woodbury Langdon created a Colonial Revival masterpiece for a summer home, making many changes to the site. They removed most of the Victorian features that had been introduced to the house, including fireplace surrounds, wallpapers, chandeliers, and other architectural details. The gas system was replaced with electricity and plumbing was introduced. They began by replacing the original service ell with a twenty-room addition to the house, designed by the firm McKim, Mead and White of New York City. The prestigious firm, having completed the “colonializing” of the White House, finished work on the Langdon House in 1907. Their work entailed razing the original service ell, including the kitchen and various outbuildings. Unfortunately, no record was left of the original buildings, except for footprints on early nineteenth-century maps.
The Langdons' addition included a dining room based on a room found in Woodbury Langdon’s 1785 home, located a few blocks from the Langdon House. Though a fire destroyed much of the original eighteenth-century structure, the Rockingham Hotel was built around the remaining rooms. One of those rooms is the dining room, from which a replica was built in the Langdon House. Not wanting to make an exact copy, McKim, Mead and White took artistic license in the decorative moldings, medallions, and wall sconces. The Langdons also added a complete kitchen complex including a butler’s pantry, a washing room, six servant rooms, and a dining room and sitting room to support them. A bedroom suite was created for Mrs. Langdon in the new wing and included a bathroom and dressing room. Other bathrooms were creatively inserted into the original eighteenth-century structure.
The Langdons made changes to the exterior of the house as well. The window over the front portico was enlarged and a triangular pediment over the front door was replaced with a transom. In the first few decades of the twentieth century they also poured a concrete floor in the eighteenth-century carriage barn to create a garage suitable for automobiles and created a small apartment on the second floor to house the chauffeur. A piazza, or solarium, was added to the back of the house, off the morning room.
Mrs. Langdon acquired multiple properties abutting the Langdon House and grounds and created pleasure gardens that included outbuildings, a 100-foot arbor with climbing roses and grapes, and a tennis court. She deeded the house to Historic New England in 1947, although her sister Helen Kremer maintained life rights to the house until her death in 1955.
Historic New England began operating the Langdon House as a museum almost immediately. The tour through the site leads visitors on a 150-year tour of Portsmouth. Special note is made of the important architectural details, such as the first floor entryway and carvings. Visitors are introduced to Portsmouth during its most profitable early years, the vast mercantile trade and export of local timber, and the important Portsmouth furniture that was produced in the early nineteenth century. Visitors are introduced to Governor John Langdon and learn the stories of his part in the Revolution and the early United States. Finally, they are introduced to his descendants and explore the Colonial Revival movement.
Most recently, collections have been cleared from the reception room to experiment with non-traditional use. As in John Langdon’s day, the room is used for social gathering and community involvement. The grounds of the Langdon House are available for weddings and other events. For information on renting the grounds for a wedding, or the reception room for a private meeting, board retreat, poetry reading, or even a yoga class, please call 603-436-3205 or visit the Function Rentals page. The house remains open regularly for tours and special events.