An excellent example of a coastal merchant’s house, yet unusual among urban dwellings in its spacious grounds and gardens, the Rundlet-May House is one of the best documented of Portsmouth’s buildings. Built for Exeter-born merchant James Rundlet (1771–1852) when its owner was only thirty-six years old but already wealthy from retail trade in textiles, the dwelling was largely built by artisans from Rundlet’s birthplace of Exeter and is richly detailed yet more conservative than some houses of its era. A drawing with a first-floor plan and front elevation survives, and may be in Rundlet’s own hand since he invested in a copy of Asher Benjamin’s new book, The American Builder’s Companion (1806). But the simple drawing gives no hint of the varied joinery within the house, and this is known to be the work of craftsmen, several of them young men, working under the supervision of Ebenezer Clifford (1746–1821) of Exeter. Clifford was already well known in southeastern New Hampshire for work twenty years earlier on the John Langdon House in Portsmouth and, more recently, for his design of houses and of academy buildings in Exeter (1794–1796) and Atkinson (1803). By December 1807, Clifford and more than twenty other joiners had expended some two thousand man-days on the new dwelling, and additional work would follow in 1808. The result of this investment of labor is a house that displays a wide and inventive array of molding profiles and fanciful enrichments of the Federal style. The house is notable for its use of hardwood accent panels that contrast with the painted pine of mantelpieces, and for its delicate and sinuous balustrade executed in mahogany. The parlor fireplace demonstrates a combination of old and new designs by combining a carved mantelpiece derived from William Pain’s The British Palladio (1786) with an overmantel decorated with extremely attenuated colonnettes supported on tiny gilded wooden balls—a conceit that was probably inspired by Asher Benjamin’s book but was soon exaggerated as a favorite motif of Piscataqua joiners. The house is also technologically sophisticated, having the most complete of all surviving Rumford kitchens in the region, with a roaster made by John Badger and Henry Cate of Portsmouth. This Rumford kitchen was the descendant of the potager in Benning Wentworth’s house of c. 1760, but includes a sheet-metal roasting oven in addition to the brick baking oven and the charcoal boilers seen in the earlier house. The American Loyalist and scientist, Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford, published his design for the roasting oven in London in 1796, and fabricators in the larger American cities, including Portsmouth, were selling these devices to wealthy homeowners soon after 1800. In addition to its architectural character, the Rundlet-May House is resplendent with original furnishings, wallpapers, and textiles, and displays many additions and changes made by Rundlet descendants who owned the property until the 1970s.
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