Governor’s Family Residence
John Langdon (pictured) 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. It 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 to 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 to 1809 and 1810 to 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 Rundlet-May House and 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 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. Elizabeth pre-deceased him in 1813. His one surviving child, 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.
Cyrus Bruce and Ona Judge
By 1788, Governor Langdon had become a professed abolitionist, but like other successful merchants of the time, his wealth was predicated on trade with slave-owning states and the plantations of the West Indies. As a privateer during the war, Langdon’s patriotism was laced with some degree of opportunism. The contradictions of a post-Revolution New England are illustrated by the stories of two protagonists in the Langdon family story: Cyrus Bruce and Ona Judge.
Cyrus Bruce served as Governor Langdon’s majordomo and doorman and was among the most recognizable and fashionable Black men in Portsmouth. He was known for his immaculate attire and the pride he took in his position. For decades Bruce was believed to have been hired by Governor Langdon as a paid servant, but new research suggests that Bruce had been enslaved by the Langdon family a decade prior to signing his first paid contract in 1783. In 1785, Cyrus Bruce married Flora Stoodley, who earlier had been enslaved by another Portsmouth family. The couple lived in a small house on the Langdon House grounds near Washington Street, within a large freed Black community. Bruce, paid in cash, goods and housing, remained in Langdon’s employment until 1789.
In 2018 Richard Haynes joined the Langdon House artist-in-residency program and drew inspiration from the story of Cyrus Bruce, creating a portrait of Bruce that now hangs in the formal reception room at Langdon House, beside that of Governor Langdon. The story of Bruce and his prominent position within the Langdon household during its heyday, and the implication that he was, at one point, emancipated by the Governor, tell a compelling story about abolition sentiment and what opportunities were and were not available to the Black people of Portsmouth.
Ona Judge was a mixed-race woman who was enslaved by the family of George Washington, first at the family’s plantation at Mount Vernon and later at the President’s House in Philadelphia. In 1796, when Judge was in her early twenties, she fled from slavery after learning that Martha Washington had intended to give her as a gift to her granddaughter, known to have a horrible temper. As she recalled in 1845, “whilst they were packing up to go to Virginia, I was packing to go, I didn’t know where; for I knew that if I went back to Virginia, I should never get my liberty.” Judge boarded a packet ship bound for north to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where she began a new life.
Although she may have thought she had found safe haven, Ona Judge was recognized on the streets of Portsmouth by Elizabeth Langdon, the teenage daughter of John Langdon who was a friend of Washington’s granddaughter. George Washington soon learned of Judge’s whereabouts and sent his nephew, Burwell Bassett, to retrieve her. Coincidentally, Bassett was John Langdon’s houseguest when he came to Portsmouth, and over dinner, Bassett revealed his plan to kidnap Ona Judge and bring her back to Virginia. This time Langdon helped Judge by secretly sending word for her to go immediately into hiding. Ona Judge was never caught and lived the rest of her life in New Hampshire. She was also never freed by the Washington family.
Episcopalian Social Center
Charles Burroughs (shown in silhouette portrait), 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 was not only a home, but also a social center where Anne and Charles applied their Protestant work ethic to social issues of the time, including poverty, mental health, and education. The Burroughs were active in early reform movements and charitable and benevolent organization throughout Portsmouth and across the state of New Hampshire. Among other things, Charles Burroughs served as Trustee at Phillips Exeter Academy, President of New Hampshire Asylum for the Insane, President of Portsmouth Athenaeum, and President of Howard Benevolent Society. It is not difficult to imagine how the Burroughs may have used the elegant reception rooms at Langdon House to promote their work within the city.
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.
Frances E. Bassett Summer House
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-great-granddaughter of John Langdon and Woodbury’s third cousin, in September of 1896. Upon his mother’s death in 1902, the house reverted back to Woodbury. In 1904, he deeded it to his wife, Elizabeth. Woodbury Langdon died in 1921.
Colonial Revival Showplace
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, including fireplace surrounds, wallpaper, 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 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 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 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.
Explore Langdon House
Historic New England began operating Langdon House as a museum almost immediately upon acquisition in 1947. Visitors learn about 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. They also see important architectural details such as the first-floor entryway and carvings in the reception room and parlor.
While on tour, meet Governor John Langdon and learn about his part in the Revolution and the early United States, and hear the stories of freedman Cyrus Bruce’s prominent position in the Portsmouth community and the harrowing escape from enslavement made by Ona Judge. Explore the Colonial Revival movement through the McKim, Meade, and White addition and upgrades to technology made by Langdon descendants.
As in John Langdon and Cyrus Bruce’s day, the reception room is used for social gathering and community involvement. The grounds of Langdon House are available for weddings and other private events. The house is open regularly for tours and the gardens and grounds are open dawn to dusk and offer significant green space for the Portsmouth community.