A special home for N.H.’s president

  • Franklin Pierce Mansion at 52 South Main Street, prior to the devasting fire. —Concord Public Library

  • The vacant lot and remaining granite steps to the Franklin Pierce Mansion at 52 S. Main St. Courtesy of James Spain

For the Monitor
Published: 10/14/2020 9:49:58 AM

As you travel on South Main Street each day the landscape has changed over the past century. Some buildings have been removed while others were renovated. The level of the street and addition of modern technology has also changed the landscape. The streets have been paved and the lamplighter no longer makes his late-night rounds igniting the old gas street lanterns. The sound of horses and carriages over cobblestones have given way to modern motor vehicles. As we live and conduct business, time certainly marches on.

There are a set of granite steps located at 52 S. Main St. The steps were once elegant during their day as were the granite retaining wall and defined iron fencing. We pass these steps each day, not knowing where they lead, back to another time over 160 years ago.

When New Hampshire’s only president ended his term in Washington, D.C., he set plans to return to the city from which he had come. His presidency concluded during most troubling time. His close friends in Concord were concerned about finding a suitable residence in Concord where he could spend the remainder of his years with his wife. One friend in particular was Willard Williams, who worked as a foreman at the Abbott Downing Coach Company on South Main Street. Mr. Williams selected a suitable location and built a fine house for the soon to return Pierce family, at 52 S. Main St.

While Pierce was in his final year as president of the United States, we find Willard Williams in Concord, conversing with the president as he sets about with his project to design and build a home suitable for a former president. The home was completed prior to the Civil War years in the French style that was popular during that era. Attention to detail was important to Willard Williams as he laid the foundation to this house high above Main Street with those granite steps and granite retaining walls graced with iron fencing and granite posts. The house was constructed as a three-story building and topped with a mansard roof, providing the appearance of even greater height of the level Main Street below. Guests were greeted by the Pierce family at the top of the granite steps and entered the home through impressive double doors into the entry hall. A parlor, extra wide hall, sitting room and dining room were located on the first floor with five additional rooms on the second floor. A series of pantries with a kitchen were located in the rear of the house. As President Pierce and his wife left Washington one last time, they traveled north to Concord to spend their first evening in their new home at 52 S. Main St.

It was within just eight years that news of the assassination of President Lincoln reached Concord. The president succumbed to his wound on April 15, 1865, at the Peterson Family Boarding House in Washington, DC. It was on the granite steps we see today at 52 S. Main St. that former President Franklin Pierce stood and addressed a crowd of people. President Pierce himself died at 52 S. Main St., four years later.

It was after the passing of Franklin Pierce that his last home was converted to a church and used by the Swedish Baptist. There were some renovations and the interior stairway altered to make way for the congregation. Just like President Pierce, the Swedish Baptist Church moved on too, with the home of the former president remaining vacant for many years and falling into a state of disrepair.

A gentleman from Concord by the name of John Gravelle was recently retired from the Boston & Maine Railroad and was in search of a project during his golden years. Somewhat of a historian himself he always held a keen interest in the old home at 52 S. Main St. that was built for President Pierce. The condition of the empty home was very poor, but the structure was solid with the house sitting upon a strong foundation. John Gravelle soon purchased the property and set about restoring the building. His intention was not only to restore the interior, exterior and grounds of the historic home but to also furnish the home as it was furnished when the President and his wife resided there. Mr. Gravelle and his wife soon advertised about town that they would like to purchase the original furnishings that belonged to President Pierce. Furnishings that had been auctioned off after his death with many pieces still within our little town.

The Pierce bedroom where the president passed away was returned to the way it looked while the president resided there, a kerosene lantern, portraits, mirrors, chairs, a settee and Currier portraits of the president once again graced the restored home. The home where President Pierce spent his last days was complete and the Gravelle’s rented out the once again elegant and historic home for weddings and celebrations. The home that was visited by many prominent and famous travelers such as Nathaniel Hawthorne was once again showcased and revered by the citizens of Concord.

The property was eventually purchased by the Waters Funeral Home and placed on the National Register of Historic Homes in 1979. A fire destroyed this historic home on Sept. 17, 1981 and the lots remains empty to this very day. The solitary granite steps, which no longer lead to a house, still remain.

You can still visit Pierce’s 1842-48 home, the Pierce Manse on Horseshoe Pond Lane, where it was relocated from Montgomery Street, to learn more about the state’s only president.

There are still stories and history surrounding the home where the President spent his final hour. President Pierce was alone on the night of Oct. 8, 1869, his wife, Jane Pierce, passing away in 1863. Franklin Pierce kept a staff of domestic servants on duty to assist, in a particular a young lady from Concord that was herself an immigrant from Ireland. As the president retired for the evening in ill health he called to this young Irish woman and stated that his moments were limited.

The President of the United States asked the Irish domestic servant to hold his hand for he did not wish to die alone. The young woman from Ireland reached out and held his hand until his very last breath.

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