PORTSMOUTH — A master carpenter, wallpaper historian, “paint detective” and wall-covering expert form a historic preservation dream team assembled to restore the 1730s Tobias Lear House, before it opens as an inn next year.
Stephen Foster bought the Portsmouth home, which is on the National Historic Register, a year ago. It was suffering from deferred maintenance in the historic South End with its chipping exterior paint visible from every view.
The sale came with a preservation easement that requires maintaining the historic integrity of everything there now, into perpetuity. That easement was a deterrent to most buyers, but Foster has done this before.
He was featured in the Washington Post in 2014 for applying the same restorative vision, and resources, to a rundown 1763 Virginia plantation property called Wilton House, now available for short-term rentals.
A Washington, D.C. resident, Foster was sent a Portsmouth Herald article about the poor condition of the Tobias Lear House and the inability of former owner, Wentworth Gardner Tobias Lear Houses Association, to raise funds for its rehabilitation. His sister Jo Keefe, a Portsmouth resident, sent him the Herald article and is now partnering with him on the Tobias Lear House restoration.
Foster is the latest in a history of owners that include Tobias Lear V, personal secretary to President George Washington, who visited the South End home during his 1789 Northern Tour. In a make-shift office, in the room Washington visited, Foster said Washington didn’t sleep there, but did stay for tea.
Portsmouth wallpaper historian Richard Nyland was there last week with samples custom-made to match the home’s history. Included is a French wallpaper reproduced in New York with three color blocks to recreate a sample found in the Tobias Lear House. Foster calls it “Madam Lear’s Folly.”
When restored, the Tobias Lear House will have two bedroom suites, modern bathrooms and 18th century furnishings from Portsmouth, York, Maine and Boston’s North Shore, Foster said. The furnishings he has collected are waiting in three storage units.
While funding and managing restoration of the 49 Hunking St. property, Foster has been hands-on, including stripping paint from the old wood floors to expose original pine planks and brighten the rooms.
He’s hired John Schnitzler, a master carpenter with decades of preservation work, including home restoration at Strawbery Banke Museum. The roof is being covered with Alaskan yellow cedar shingles and while restoring clapboards, ells, doorways and mantles, Schnitzler is uncovering history.
He’s found evidence of an ell on the Hunking Street side he said was a shop for selling goods brought into port by Captain Tobias Lear III, who built the original home.
“He had a wharf and a boat at the end of the street,” Schnitzler said, gesturing toward the Back Channel.
A Kittery, Maine native, Schnitzler said he’s learned the home was expanded, two new chimneys were built from bricks in the original home and he’s discovered the reuse of doors, panels and bricks.
“All this wood tells me a story,” he said, while explaining the property was owned by a succession of five Tobias Lears. When Lear V owned it, he said, his mother and sister lived on opposite sides and, he believes, an ell was added to the back so his mother would have a kitchen.
Landscape photographer and artist Wallace Nutting was also an owner of the property.
“The Wentworth Gardner Association did some things to keep it going,” said Schnitzler. “But the big monte? No.”
While the framing tells him the story of the house, Schnitzler is documenting everything in pictures and notes. Wall panels were moved from one side of the house to the other, he knows, because they measure 7’ 4″ like the front of the house, not the 8’ height in the back.
Lathing plaster and ceilings are in tact from the 1730s, he said.
“There’s an amazing amount of original material here,” he said.
While he frames the two new bathrooms, original walls remain as-is behind them. Even if something was added later in history, like the corner boards and door surround, they must remain under the preservation easement.
“You can’t meddle with it,” Schnitzler said.
Historic mason Tom Ahern, who deconstructed the 210-foot stone wall in front of the historic North Cemetery, then rebuilt it, was hired to build a stone wall at the property line and a foundation beneath the reconstructed rear ell.
Paint historian Susan Buck was brought in to analyze painted surfaces so they can be replicated. Foster said she’s now in Williamsburg, Virginia and has worked on Mt. Vernon, Monticello and the Forbidden City.
Vermont dendrochronologist Bill Flynn was retained to study wood samples from the Tobias Lear House and match them against a known database.
Kate Shattuck of Maine is replicating and recreating original plaster and wall coverings.
Foster’s sister said she’s working with the University of New Hampshire to learn about people who were enslaved at the home. She said an inventory of property held by Lear II includes a female slave named Venus. Keefe said she’s learned Venus had a child named Cesar and a second woman named Violet was enslaved in the Tobias Lear House.
Foster said his cost to restore the property is about $800,000 “from soup to nuts.” Restoration is expected to be complete next year when the property will be opened as an inn for guests to have the entire museum home for themselves.
Foster said pricing hasn’t been set, but reservations are being accepted. He has also agreed to reserve time to show the house to the public in connection with ongoing tours of the adjacent Wentworth-Gardner House.
“It’s been a great pleasure,” said Foster, about his work on the historic Portsmouth home. “It will hold its own economically. It’ll have value and there will be a civic component when done.”
For information about the restoration and future inn, visit tobiaslearhouse.com, or Tobias Lear House on Instagram.