Building History

sectionBgBanisterDiscover Portsmouth is really two separate Federal Style buildings both built around 1810. One was originally a private home built by Thomas Morton who ran a grocery store downtown. The other half, at the corner of Islington and Middle Streets, was a private school called Portsmouth Academy. After the school closed, it was rented for a Civil War memorial and in 1898 was entirely renovated for the city’s first public library.

In 1954 a one-story brick addition was built connecting the two properties. In 1976 that addition was totally replaced by a two story modern building that also replaced older additions to the Morton-Benedict house. The combined building served as the city library until 2006 when the new library was built on Parrott Avenue. The landmark is now leased to the Portsmouth Historical Society to help the public “Discover Portsmouth!”


Our immediate goal is to save this historic building as a space that benefits us all. In 2006 the city opened a new high-tech library, abandoning its former home in the center of town. Two beautiful 1810-era buildings were left dark and positioned for sale. Unwilling to see these historic public structures go into private hands, the Portsmouth Historical Society took a bold initiative. Now we need you to keep the doors open. Discover Portsmouth is a superb facility, but we inherited some critical problems.

Four years ago, the “old library” was just a vacant shell, with bad roofs and worn out mechanical systems. Today it is a vital community asset. The capital campaign now underway funds an energy retrofit to decrease operating costs and reduce the carbon footprint. We also need to increase accessibility to the building and improve visitor services. Without these renovations, we cannot operate, and a public Portsmouth treasure could be lost.

We are a vital link to the continued economic development of downtown Portsmouth. The City’s Master Plan identified the need for a “gateway to the Islington Street Arts Corridor.” We are that gateway located at the key transition from vibrant Market Square to the burgeoning developments in the West End and the new hotels
and conference centers of the Northern tier.

Discover Portsmouth and its galleries and public spaces are unique in the city and will be used to their fullest potential. From the grand scale of the Academy Gallery to the intimacy of our film room — we delight audiences with cultural programs, provide a worthy back drop for high quality art, and accommodate an inspiring space
for both corporate and nonprofit events of all kinds. Nowhere else in Portsmouth does this happen. The building needs a relatively small investment. The return on your investment in Discover Portsmouth, we pledge, will greatly benefit the community we all love so much.

We’ve come a long way in a short time.

Now will you help keep the gateway to cultural resources open for generations to come?

Pre-campaign work: $350,000 (completed)

2008-2011. Gallery lighting, Academy building roof, carpeting, flooring, signage, landscape executed, refurbishing of Morton Benedict House.

Phase 1: $1 Million Energy Retrofit (completed)

Energy retrofit project. New heating and air conditioning systems, new lighting and electrical to improve efficiency and decrease operating expenses, all to replace a rusting system built in 1976 that is out of date, on the verge of breaking, and terribly expensive to operate.

Phase 1A: $350,000 Energy Envelope (completed)

Building Envelope project. New insulation in roof and new roof on Morton Benedict House.

Phase 2: $1 Million Improving Access (2014-2015, estimated)

Improve access to buildings. Accessible wheel chair ramp, elevator, stair egress to improve exiting, bathrooms with accessible features, and improved visitor services.

Phase 3: $1 Million Endowment

Our staff has years of experience in planned giving, including gift annuities, charitable lead trusts, and much more. Please make an appointment soon to leave a legacy for cultural Portsmouth.