Portsmouth would benefit from fixed Brown House, 'Friends' say
PORTSMOUTH — Craig Clark is standing on the roof of the Brown House's front porch, taking in the panoramic view of playing fields below him at Glen Farms.
There's a Babe Ruth baseball game going on to his left, another game for younger kids next to that, a soccer game further to the west and lacrosse to the north. On some days, said the president of the Friends of the Brown House, every field is in use, including the polo grounds further east down the slope.
Mr. Clark estimates that a minimum of 800 Portsmouth children use the recreation complex two to three times every week. "I would think that's pretty conservative," he said.
The rewards of fixing up the house are many, he said.
"Can you imagine on a night with polo, you could have a party outside here," he said, motioning to the house's expansive backyard lawn which is used for the annual Easter egg hunt — the Friends' primary fund-raising event. "It's one of those things that, if we build it, they will come."
Although the Elmhurst property chapel has been getting more attention lately, the Friends say the Brown House is more worthy of saving because it would benefit more people.
"I mean no disrespect to anyone who's trying to save the chapel, but it bothers me. We have enough mothballed buildings in town," said Mr. Clark.
Efforts to transform the historic farmhouse into a center for the town's different sports leagues and other nonprofits have stalled, however. Mr. Clark blames it on a combination of things: the poor economy, the town's financial restraints, a dearth of outside funding and tougher building codes due to the Station Nightclub fire in 2003.
"We've been at a standstill for the past four years," said Mr. Clark, who sees the building as a golden opportunity for everyone who uses the athletic fields at the town-owned Glen Farm.
The home was built in the mid-1800s and used as a farmhouse for Leonard Brown, who worked as a wheelwright and blacksmith until he acquired his father-in-law’s farm. The farm was purchased by Henry A.C. Taylor in 1902, and the home was used as a support residence for Glen Farm until the early 1950s, when the Taylor family began renting it out as income property. The home remained a rental property until 1988, and the town purchased Glen Farm the following year.
The structure has great historic value, Mr. Clark said.
"It's one of the last farmhouses in Portsmouth that's in its original setting," he said.
When he moved back to Portsmouth in 1998, Mr. Clark said he heard proposals for everything from a bed and breakfast, tennis courts and more on the farmhouse property. In 1999, the town solicited proposals from nonprofits to take the dilapidated building over for free on the condition that repairs were made to the structure.
"Basically we were the only ones to make a proposal for it to be used as a community center," said Mr. Clark, who believed from the start that the house could be revitalized. "When I took it over, people said to burn it down. But this is a solid building."
Under the Friends' plans, the first floor of the building's "L" section would be a free-standing concession area.
"Wouldn't it be nice, on a cold day in March, to have a cup of coffee in here?" Mr. Clark said.
The rest of the first floor would be used for meeting rooms, and the second floor would have rented offices for various sports leagues or other nonprofit groups, as well as more meeting and storage space.
Not only could the house serve as a gathering center for the various athletic teams that use Glen Farm, it would also save them money, Mr. Clark said. He pointed to all the different portable toilets that sprinkle the fields.
"They all pay whatever per month for the port-a-lets, yet wouldn't it be better to have a central location for a restroom?" he said. "For the amount of use this site gets, to not have a bathroom and electricity and running water, or a place to go if there's a lightning storm, is absurd."
Funding has been the project's big stumbling block, however. The Friends have used different contractors to restore parts of the structure over the years. "As we've had the funding available, we've done different things," said Mr. Clark, who said the Friends are finding it difficult to attract the bigger grants needed to move on.
"The foundations say it's town-owned property to they want to see some commitment from the town," said Mr. Clark, adding that a town grant of $75,000 to $100,000 should be sufficient to get the project rolling again.
Town Council President James Seveney said the Friends have done a good job with making improvements on the house "on the basis of private donations and elbow grease." Although the current economic climate may make it difficult for the town to commit to any funding, he'd be happy to hear more from the group.
"I would certainly welcome them to come forward and perhaps to present a plan," said Mr. Seveney. "I would like to see the place fixed up. It's a historical building for the town."
Mr. Clark said he'd like the group to approach the council again in the near future with new estimates on the cost of the project.
He also made a "call to action" to everyone who uses the property.
"If people want to be involved, we'd love to take the house to the next level to have a community center in Portsmouth," he said, adding that the project needs fresh ideas in addition to funding.
"There are so many opportunities. It's a blank slate," he said.
How you can help
Private, tax-deductible donations to help renovate the house may be sent to Friends of the Brown House, 2200 East Main Road, Portsmouth 02871. The nonprofit is also part of Clements' Marketplace's donation program, so you can also mail register receipts to that address.
For more information about the Brown House and to find out what you can do to help, e-mail Mr. Clark at email@example.com or visit www.onaquidneck.com/brownhouse.