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The House and Grounds

Wadsworth-Longfellow House and Store, 1882

Wadsworth House, Portland, 1786

In 1784 Adjutant General Peleg Wadsworth purchased a lot of roughly one-and-one-half acres in Portland. Narrow but deep, it ran from Back Street (now Congress) north one-half mile to Back Cove. His two-story wood-frame store and barn were the first structures to be built, before he turned his attention to the house. Wadsworth commissioned John Nichols, a Portland brick mason, with the construction, which took two years.

Back hall, Wadsworth-Longfellow House, Portland, ca. 1902

Back Hall, Wadsworth-Longfellow House, Portland, ca. 1902.

The Wadsworth-Longfellow House was built in the neoclassical style, typical of Anglo-American domestic architecture in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Originally of two stories with a gable roof, the house features a symmetrical five-bay facade (a door flanked by two windows on either side). The chimneys were placed on outside walls, thus opening the center of the house. The large central hall, running the depth of the house to the back door, allowed easy access throughout the house for the Wadsworths, a family of twelve. By federal American standards, the size and arrangement were generous, especially in the separation of public and private spaces. When completed in 1786, this fully brick house, the first of its kind in Portland, standing atop the ridge on the back edge of town, would have been an impressive addition to the small sea port town.

Market Square, Portland, ca. 1880

Market Square (Later Monument Square) Portland, ca. 1880.

On the east side of the house was Peleg Wadsworth's general store. The property also contained an extensive garden and fruit trees and the family made use of a barn for animals. From the windows of the second floor one could see the White Mountains on a clear day. From the front windows of the house one would have enjoyed a view of the marketplace, now Monument Square, and its shops and businesses. The hay scales stood in the middle of the square, surrounded by farmers with wagonloads of hay, meat, eggs, and other produce they had brought to Portland to sell. Buildings were clustered more closely together as the land sloped to the waterfront, where ships arrived laden with molasses and other imported goods, or departed with cargoes of wood and other New England products. On the horizon, the islands of Casco Bay were visible across the harbor.

Longfellow and home, Portland, ca. 1890

Longfellow and Home - Congress Street, c. 1890

In September 1814 a fire in the kitchen chimney destroyed the gable roof. The family immediately planned to "put on another story and L [ell], which will make a $500 job but the House will be better than it was." New window sashes with large six-over-six panes replaced the old twelve-over-twelve design. For a modest investment, the home of the Wadsworth-Longfellows now resembled the houses of their wealthy, sophisticated neighbors (particularly Edward Preble, commodore of the United States Navy, next door). The third floor included seven additional chambers.

Wadsworth-Longfellow House, Portland, ca. 1880

Wadsworth-Longfellow House, Portland, ca. 1885

The Longfellows separated their house lot into formal and domestic spaces by the use of fences. Across the front a simple fence of round-headed iron palings with brick posts gave a formal presence to the main entry. A solid wooden-board fence set off the service area and drying yard to the east. Large elm trees shaded the yard along Congress Street. Today's high iron fence and plantings do not reproduce the Longfellows' domestic grounds, but are a modern interpretation of the colonial-revival garden plan of landscape architect Myron Lamb, installed in the 1920s. Read more about the garden.

Doorway, Wadsworth-Longfellow House, Portland, ca. 1902

Doorway, Wadsworth-Longfellow House, Portland

The facade's first floor featured exterior blinds or shutters in place by 1867, when the earliest known photograph was taken. Blinds also were used on the upper stories, but only on the side and back of the house. The front door retains its original brass knocker; a door bell was added in the early nineteenth century. "Double" or storm windows were in use by 1851, an early Maine example.

Drawing for Maine Historical Society headquarters, ca. 1902

Drawing for New Library Building, Maine Historical Society, 1903-1907

The Maine Historical Society research library stands approximately on the site of a Wadsworth-Longfellow family barn. Anne Longfellow stipulated in her donation of the house that the only building that could be added to the property was the library. The library was finished in 1907 and renovated and expanded in 2009.