You’ve seen the recent headlines about plans to demolish Portsmouth's historic Creek Farm. You’ve read about efforts to save the 1888-era summer cottage on the shores of Sagamore Creek. But you may still be wondering: Where is Creek Farm, who built it and why should we care? The backstory, my friends, is an important but little known slice of Portsmouth’s past.
If you’ve never driven down the narrow tree-lined Little Harbor Road, this would be a good time, but hurry. (Turn left after South Cemetery heading out of town on Sagamore Avenue.) The road ends at what was once the waterfront property of New Hampshire’s Colonial Gov. Benning Wentworth. His 1760 mansion, now owned by the state of New Hampshire, is to the left. Creek Farm, now owned by the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, is to the right.
Gov. Wentworth had been dead for more than a century when John Templeton Coolidge III bought the decaying 40-room Little Harbor mansion in 1886. Coolidge, a fine arts graduate of Harvard College, was descended from well-to-do, socially prominent Boston stock. The Coolidge family was a culture magnet for the intellectual elite of Boston who “rusticated” in the rambling colonial mansion for the next 50 summers.
Coolidge’s Harvard classmate John Singer Sargent, a great American painter, was a frequent guest. So was famed historian Francis Parkman, Coolidge’s father-in-law. So was Isabella Stewart Gardner, whose world art collection of 2,500 pieces launched the Boston museum named in her honor. Painter Edmund Tarbell and writer John Albee who summered in nearby New Castle were also guests. Theodore Roosevelt even stopped by.
The Carey family arrives
J. Templeman Coolidge III was well off, but another Harvard chum Arthur Astor Carey (1857-1923), was super rich. Carey’s great-grandfather, John Jacob Astor, who made his fortune in the fur trade and then in New York City real estate, had been America’s first multimillionaire. Although only in his 30s, Arthur Carey was a billionaire by modern standards. He had recently built a mansion in Cambridge, Massachusetts, designed by a Harvard classmate, when he purchased 40 acres of land on Sagamore Creek for a summer home in 1887.
Carey hired yet another Harvard buddy, Alexander Wadsworth Longfellow (a nephew of a famous poet) to design his Portsmouth cottage. By the time it was done in 1889 Carey was married to an English woman, Agnes Whiteside, who designed the elaborate Creek Farm gardens. That same year, Carey inherited another $1.5 million from his parents and the young couple with two mansions honeymooned in Europe. They eventually had four children who summered among the rich and famous on the shore of Sagamore Creek.
The curious Mr. Carey
Arthur Astor Carey is one interesting wealthy guy. Born in Rome, Italy, he studied art in Paris. He didn’t have to work a day in his life, yet he chose to teach English at Harvard, to write books and to kickstart artistic and social organizations. His philanthropy is well documented including sizable grants to artists, libraries, schools and a home for disadvantaged children. He loved music, painted and was fascinated by archaeology, sailing and science. Carey was a devotee of the Arts and Crafts movement and a founder of both the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and Boy Scouts of America.
One of his books, “New Nerves for Old” (1914) is a fascinating essay on overcoming nervous tension and depression by retraining one’s neural pathways. Carey was ahead of his time. He offers a program of meditation, prayer, willpower and exercise to reduce stress. Carey explains he too had “long experience with the facts and conditions of nervous suffering” that can lead to self-reproach, self-pity and self-harm. For a person suffering from a nervous disorder, he wrote, not even social position, physical health or wealth could bring comfort. He should know.
Little Harbor Chapel
Carey’s solution for curing nervous tension through meditation and prayer grew out of his strong religious beliefs. He was a follower of an 18th century inventor and scientist named Emanuel Swedenborg. Like other Swedenborgians, Arthur Astor Carey chose to cast off centuries of Christian theology and focus on the example set by the life and teachings of the biblical Jesus Christ. Living a spiritual life, Carey claimed, had nothing to do with blindly observing religious rituals. Finding his “spiritual manhood,” Carey wrote, meant pursuing self-knowledge, humility, gentleness, compassion, and seeking to compromise with others.
“The true spirit of religion is like sunshine,” Carey once wrote as if envisioning today. “I will not try to argue with my brother, not to convert him, but as no one can live without warmth I will try to ‘sun him out’... If I value my own convictions, I will gladly respect those of my neighbor. If I am trying to love him as myself, I will also love and protect his independence.”
In 1902, Carey hired Boston architect Richard Arnold Fisher to design a tiny chapel modeled after one built at Harvard in 1744. Carey’s “Chapel of the New Jerusalem” located on his Creek Farm acreage held summer services beginning in 1903. Today, Little Harbor Chapel is an “undenominational” congregation that conducts religious services by a series of guest ministers in July and August. It is also a popular scenic site for weddings, baptisms, memorial services, concerts and cultural events.
Treaty of Portsmouth
In the 1890s, the Careys greatly expanded their summer “cottage” to the size of a small hotel. Besides its architectural importance and its role as a summer hideaway for Boston artists and intellectuals, one key international event put Creek Farm permanently in the history books. In the summer of 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt invited delegates from Russia and Japan to negotiate an end to the bloody territorial war that had killed 600,000 men. Delegates met at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine, and stayed at the Wentworth by the Sea hotel in New Castle.
When the treaty negotiations ground to a halt and delegates threatened to leave Portsmouth, Agnes and Arthur Carey, urged by President Roosevelt’s representative, stepped in to help. To put the visiting delegates at ease, the Careys invited them to dinner and garden parties at Creek Farm, just a quick boat trip up the back harbor from the Wentworth Hotel. The Careys’ young daughter Alida remembered the Japanese envoys as reserved and the Russians as noisy. The negotiations continued and the war was ended.
The involvement of private citizens in this high-stakes negotiation process, now known as “citizen diplomacy,” has been widely acclaimed. President Roosevelt, although he never attended the local talks, received the Nobel Peace Prize for the successful Treaty of Portsmouth that ended the Russo-Japanese War. Roosevelt acknowledged the Careys’ role by loaning them the presidential yacht “Mayflower” for a harbor tour.
At this writing, the Carey Creek Farm Cottage where the foreign delegates gathered, where Boston intellectuals played, and where the Carey family grew up, still stands. The outline of Agnes Carey's ornate gardens is still visible. The Forestry Society, which owns the property, delayed destroying the rambling historic cottage in 2010, but is now planning to immediately follow through with demolition. Portsmouth Advocates, a wing of the Portsmouth Historical Society, has begun a Hail Mary effort, once more, to save the historic structure and memories it evokes. The image of Creek Farm has been almost entirely scrubbed from the Forestry Society website already.
Whether another of Portsmouth’s historic structures will be erased in real life – time will soon tell.
Copyright 2019 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson’s history column appears in the Portsmouth Herald every other Monday and his weekly photo blog runs each Thursday. He is the author of a dozen history books on topics including the 1873 Smuttynose ax murders, Strawbery Banke Museum, Privateer Lynx, and Wentworth by the Sea Hotel. He is currently working on a hardcover history of the Music Hall and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.