The four-story brick building at the corner of State and Pleasant streets was always the tallest kid on the block. It towered head and shoulders above its two conjoined companions below. Now, following last week’s five-alarm inferno that destroyed the State Street Saloon, it stands alone, scarred and blackened, and not for the first time.
A century ago everyone knew this slender commercial structure was “The Times Building.” The name was emblazoned across the top floor. One story below an equally large sign read “Fine Job Printing,” below that, “The States and Union,” and below that, “The Daily Times.” You couldn’t miss it.
The lone brick survivor was built around 1870. It may have been designed as a shoe factory, but it was soon connected with the other two buildings as part of the Brewster family printing business. (We’ll get to them in a moment.) The three buildings on the tiny block were known collectively as “Newspaper Row.”
Gutted by fire in February 1902, the brick Times Building looked much as it does today. But it was quickly restored. A 1910 photograph shows it draped beautifully, top to bottom, in enormous patriotic bunting. The Portsmouth Business School then occupied the top floor and there were law offices on the floor below.
No easy search
Most downtown businesses are short-lived. They flicker in and out of public memory. They leave scattered records and few images that become harder and harder to find as we travel back in time. Longevity like the 35-year run of the State Street Saloon is rare. Yet, even the prolific Daily Times that dominated Newspaper Row for half a century on this spot is all but forgotten.
Uncovering a building’s past, even in history-conscious Portsmouth, is further hampered by our fondness for renaming and renumbering our streets. State Street, for example, was originally New Street, then Queen Street. It then took on two names. From the river to Pleasant Street, maps referred to it as Buck Street. From Pleasant to Middle, it was Broad Street. Go figure.
Whatever stood here in the early 1800s was likely consumed by the infamous Christmas fires that ravaged the city. Despite the short-lived and unpopular Brick Act of 1814 that banned wooden structures downtown, the corner of Pleasant and State has been largely built of wood. An old illustration shows a row of wooden houses here in the 1850s.
Exactly when the dual three-story buildings that housed the State Street Saloon appeared remains fuzzy at this point. Early maps and early records don’t always agree. But they were clearly designed for maximum commercial use. Nestled side-by-side, they filled every available square foot on the block. Despite the fake brick facade on the upper floors of the “easterly” building, and despite the city’s troubled history with fire – they were built of wood.
Architects describe the two flat-roofed wooden buildings that collapsed last week as ‘Italianate,” a popular mid-19th-century style. They are basically boxes decorated in bits of Italian Renaissance design, an alternative to the popular Greek Revival style seen in the Unitarian Church next door. In architectural language, for example, the detailing included a “denticulated and modillion block cornice and segmental arch lintels” over the second-story windows. Few passersby likely noticed such sophisticated detail.
Remembering Charles Brewster
Whatever its early use, by January 1870, the building housed the printing office of the Portsmouth Journal, the most respected newspaper of its day. An early photo shows the paper’s name artfully stenciled on an ornate arched window on the ground floor. The sidewalks were brick, but the street was unpaved. The wooden building to the right appears dark, undecorated, and had two doorways, later removed, leading to the upper floors.
Zooming in on the photo, the Portsmouth Journal window reveals two signs that make a modern historian shiver with excitement. One advertised copies of “The Portsmouth Guidebook,” the city’s first pocket-sized guide to its many historic houses written by Sarah Haven Foster. The second sign promoted “Rambles about Portsmouth,” inarguably the most important book about the city ever written. Its author was Charles W. Brewster, the demure and dedicated man who composed, edited and printed the Portsmouth Journal for 50 years. If ever a newspaperman deserved a statue in his honor, it would be Charles Brewster.
In the mid-19th century Brewster personally “put to bed” more than 2,000 volumes of his weekly newspaper. Shy and methodical, he led a remarkably uneventful life. A punctual church-goer who abstained from tobacco and alcohol, he refused public calls to run for mayor. Brewster’s weekly history rambles demonstrated a deep love for Portsmouth’s past.
Even his friends said he was dull, but charming, attached mostly to “old habits, old principles, old friends, old books, and old ways of making money.” Brewster once wrote that, in a lifetime of walking from his house on Islington Street to his office in Market Square, he traveled a total of 27,150 miles. He claimed he had walked the circumference of the Earth, without ever leaving town.
Unfortunately, Charles Brewster was dead and buried in South Cemetery by 1868, two years before his print shop moved from Ladd Street (the alley behind the municipal parking lot) to the State Street office. His son, Lewis W. Brewster, who had apprenticed with his father at age 16, took over the Portsmouth Journal.
Until this time, Portsmouth had seen only one daily newspaper, the Morning Chronicle, begun in 1852. But in 1868, a rival, the Daily Times, appeared, kicking off a war between the city’s two politically charged penny newspapers.
The founder of the Daily Times, Joshua Foster, had been a controversial figure. His anti-Lincoln, pro-slavery paper, The States & Union, had created a riot just a few years earlier. At the close of the Civil War, a local mob had trashed Foster’s office on Daniel Street and dumped pieces of his printing press in the river nearby. But Foster and his newspaper survived. And although the Brewster family had called Foster a “skunk” in the Portsmouth Journal, his two newspapers were soon being published on “Newspaper Row.” Foster soon moved to Dover in 1873, where he founded another paper, The Daily Democrat, now owned by Seacoast Media Group, which publishes this newspaper. What goes around, comes around.
By 1898, in addition to the Saturday weekly Journal, a statewide business directory listed six other newspapers in Portsmouth, including the Chronicle, NH Gazette (launched in 1756), States & Union, Times, Penny Post and the Herald. All were published, at one time or another, within a few blocks of one another along State and Pleasant streets.
Having served the Portsmouth Journal even longer than his father, Lewis sold off the family paper in 1903 and it disappeared. (Eventually, the Portsmouth Herald under editor F.W. Hartford would buy up and close down all the competing papers.) Lewis continued the printing business on State Street with his son, Arthur Gilman Brewster, whose name later appeared across the front of the building. The grandson of Charles Brewster, Arthur offered “Steam, Book, Job & Card Printing.” The middle building, in the late 1800s, served as the Portsmouth Steam Laundry and later as a storage unit and mail room.
The Times are a’changing
The Daily Times survived until 1923. By then, the ornate front windows of the building on State Street had been replaced by plate glass. A sign above the middle building read “The People’s Shoe Store.” And here begins an incomplete recital of the businesses that occupied the two wooden buildings between the Brewster family and the State Street Saloon.
What had once been the Journal office became H. H. Dutton’s corner grocery, offering Vermont dairy butter and “Pure Lard.” For a while there was a furniture store here, and then a plumbing shop. A tailor and a hairdresser worked here in the 1930s when the upstairs served as “Moose Hall.” A variety of shops came and went as did a restaurant. Locals recall a candy store, a soda shop known as “Pete’s” and a bar called “Roger’s.”
So, long live the State Street Saloon, the last business to occupy the Brewster’s publishing empire on Newspaper Row. The Portsmouth Journal met its end here too. Although the saloon went out in a blaze of glory, the dying words of Charles W. Brewster also make an apt eulogy for the popular local bar.
Portsmouth’s premier historian died as serenely as he lived in a house just a block from where he was born on Islington Street. “Goodbye,” he told a lifelong friend, “I shall not be alive tomorrow.” And, just as calmly as he lived, Charles Brewster slipped out of his mortal shell and into the pages of Portsmouth history.
Copyright 2017 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson’s history column appears in the print version of the Portsmouth Herald every other Monday. He is the author of a dozen history books on topics including Strawbery Banke Museum, Privateer Lynx, and Wentworth by the Sea Hotel. His latest book, “Mystery at the Isles of Shoals,” is available in stores and online. He can be reached at email@example.com.