Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Cotton Tenant Restoration

Welcome back, readers! This week the Heritage House Program is bringing you exciting updates on one of our houses, the Leonard Cotton Tenant house. A lot of progress has been made on the rehabilitation of the upstairs portion of this house and we are all very excited to see the finished product in the upcoming months. 

The Leonard Cotton Tenant house will be interpreted to an undetermined time period on the first floor of the house and the upstairs will be rented out to a tenant as soon as possible after the project is complete. The Cotton Tenant house has a long history in Strawbery Banke and is one of the houses that is perfect for rehabilitation. Leonard Cotton owned many houses throughout Portsmouth and the Puddle Dock neighborhoods. After building these houses he would rent them out to tenants in order to meet the growing need for rental property that existed in the ever-changing neighborhood. As immigrants flocked to Portsmouth, the demand for inexpensive housing increased. Many could not afford to buy their own property so men like Leonard Cotton helped to provide homes and tenements for families and people in need. This house is special to the Heritage House Program because its history remains very much alive with our goal to rent the upstairs portion of the house to a tenant. Just as Leonard Cotton rented his properties, we are happy to do the same to help the community of Portsmouth and ensure Strawbery Banke's financial future. 

While the word tenement often has negative connotations as being associated with the tenements of New York City, where dozens of families were at times crammed into a single space, another definition of tenement applies aptly to Strawbery Banke's situation. Mary Dupre wrote in the Historic Structure Report: 

"Agreement on the term 'tenement' varies. One variation of the definition appears to apply to Strawbery Banke tenements, particularly since many of these  tenements were built or modified especially to be rented.

1. a term found in older deeds or in boiler-plate deed language, which means any structure on real property. 
2. A building for human habitation, especially rented to tenants.
3. An apartment or room leased to a tenant (British)"

Much research has been done on the history of this house and one scholar, John Durel wrote an extensive history of the neighborhood in his dissertation, From Strawbery Banke to Puddle Dock: the Evolution of a Neighborhood, 1630-1850. He describes the phase of settlements in the cove area where the Cotton Tenant house is located in three phases. The first phase occurred from 1690 to 1760 in which the natural environment was adapted in order to suit human needs. The land around the cove and river were divided into lots and used mainly for manufacturing, commercial and residential purposes. Waterborn trade was the primary economic influence at the time and the main determinant of land use and organization. During this period the neighborhood was very open with many vacant lots and garden spaces. (Durel 1982: 138)

The second phase of the settlement of the neighborhood was from 1760 to 1813. This phase was characterized as a time of growing population that was fortified by and living off of an expanding economy and large increases in the volume of trade. Wharves along the waterfront were expanded, pave sidewalks were made, new warehouses were built, and the number of individual house lots and dwellings increased significantly. There was a large increase of commercial traffic on the streets and the neighborhood became crowded. (Durel 1982:139)

The beginning of the third phase was marked by the three large fires of 1802, 1806, and 1813. These fires happened at the end of a prosperous period which made it possible for the reconstruction and modernization of the central part of town where the fires had occurred. However, shortly after, the economy went into decline with a shortage of timber which was a main commodity in the time period. The neighborhood began to get old and crowded and commercial activity declined in the narrow streets. This lessened the traffic in the area but it also gave the neighborhood less reason to make improvements to the streets. Since commercial activity was moving to different areas there was not much wealth left in the neighborhood to permit updating or building anew, and so, the neighborhood was turning into an old place. It became the Puddle Dock neighborhood and could be characterized as old, old-fashioned and derelict, but also as special. (Durel 1982:140-41)

Evidence for Leonard Cotton owning a house was found in the 1835 Tax Assessment. There were two house lots on Atkinson Street that Leonard Cotton owned, both valued at $400.00. One of these lots was a stable, and not a residential space. Leonard Cotton bought what became 8 (and 10) Atkinson Street. He had removed an old house and replaced it with two rental units. This action is characteristic of the 1830-1850 time period and fits the mold of typical cove activity. Cotton continued to buy and rent out these properties, as well as others, until his death in 1872. He was a man of several trades and in earliest records is described as a cooper, and in later years as a grocer and merchant. He owned property on the wharves and became the largest rental property owner in the city of Portsmouth. Court records have been found involving Leonard Cotton. It is possible that tenants would bring court cases against him to sue him, particularly if he was not a very good landlord or what we might consider a "slumlord" today. However, of all court records found involving Cotton none have been against him. He was the initiator of the cases, trying to collect unpaid rent and funds due to him from by tenants or businesses to whom he had sold goods and merchandise. 

There is a long history involving Leonard Cotton and Portsmouth, and we are happy to keep alive his tradition of renting spaces to families and conducting business with locals. Please feel free to browse some of the pictures below to get a sense of the work being done, and progress made in the Cotton Tenant House.

Front view of the restored Leonard Cotton Tenant house
Portrait of Leonard Cotton, courtesy of the Portsmouth Athenaeum

Staircase leading to the upstairs portion of the house, to be leased to a tenant.  Here is also a great example of the wooden graining that was discovered underneath a layer of paint. Below is a close-up of the graining which Chief Curator, Elizabeth Farish hopes to keep intact.
Close up of the wood graining present on the staircase and cellar door. 

Brand new shower/bathroom (to the right) in the upstairs North Room.

North wall in the South room, upstairs. This wall will eventually house the dishwasher, sink, and stove for the property. 

East wall in the South room. These windows face Prescott Park and the Piscataqua River.
West wall in the South room. This is a great example of how we saved the historic integrity of the house by keeping the fireplace intact. Although it will no longer be in use, it was important for us not to change such a significant detail. 

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