Built as the centerpiece of a unified row of brick buildings following a devastating fire in 1802, the Athenaeum was originally the office of the New Hampshire Fire and Marine Insurance Company, with a meeting room and office on the first story and a Masonic lodge room on the second. Built to be as fireproof as the technology of its period allowed, the structure was separated from its lower neighbors by brick party walls. Like other buildings in the row, it originally had a nearly flat roof covered with a “composition” of pine tar and gravel, regarded as resistant to flying firebrands; this material was found to be susceptible to leakage, and the present pitched roof, crowned with an “observatory,” was placed over the original roof (which survives) in 1826. New Hampshire native Bradbury Johnson (1766–1819), responsible for designing and building other now-lost structures in Market Square and elsewhere in coastal New Hampshire, “moddled” and drew the insurance office for a fee of $30, although he did not work on the structure. Johnson’s design, with its arcaded first story and attenuated pilasters articulating the upper floors, drew ultimately upon Boston buildings of Charles Bulfinch that had been reflected locally in the design of the wooden John Peirce Mansion (1799) in nearby Haymarket Square. Another local joiner-designer, James Nutter (1775–1855), executed the woodwork of the reading room, which is notable for its curved rear wall and glazed door and for its elaborated Federal-style cornice; in 1892, Nutter’s original chimneypieces were removed and the eastern fireplace was replaced by a Colonial Revival design by architect Henry B. Ball of Boston. The carved paterae and Composite capitals on the facade are the work of William Dearing (1759–1813), another local artisan who was noted for his ship’s carving. The building continued as an insurance office until the company’s charter expired in 1823. Thereupon, the proprietors of the Portsmouth Athenaeum (incorporated in 1817) purchased the structure and adapted it without major physical change (except for the pitched roof) to a private library and reading room that now preserves major collections pertaining to the Piscataqua region of New Hampshire and Maine. The facade of the adjacent building to the west (left), now part of the expanded Athenaeum, replicates that of the former Portsmouth Bank building (1805) after the latter was undermined and collapsed during renovations in the summer of 1983.
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