The John Butler Smith Mansion
Hillsborough, New Hampshire
Where former New Hampshire governor John B. Smith greeted guests to his home a century ago, patrons of Hillsboro’s public library today go to check out books. This building, a tremendous source of pride for the Governor and his family, is no less an asset to our community today.
Smith’s homestead was formerly the property of the heirs of Hiriam Bell, being given in deed to Smith through Mary Bell in 1880. Soon afterward, Smith and his family took up residence and made some modifications, including the addition of a French roof. Later, they hired architect William Butterfield to incorporate the original structure into a grand plan that would become the building we know today.
In July of 1891, the Keene Evening Sentinel reported that “the Hon. John B. Smith of Hillsboro Bridge, one of the largest and most successful manufacturers of New Hampshire, is about to erect upon the site of his present home one of the largest and handsomest residences in the State at a cost of from $30,000 to $40,000. Mr. Smith has just closed a contract with E.S. Foster of this city to take full charge and superintendence of the construction of the entire residence, not only overseeing and directing the workmen but looking out, also, for the purchase of supplies and materials of all kinds which are to be bought under Mr. Smith’s direction instead of being furnished by a general contractor. Mr. Foster will enter upon his duties as superintendent next week, and expects to devote the main portion of his time to the work until next year. The plans and specifications will be placed in his hands to be worked out without further supervision from the architect, Mr. William Butterfield, of Manchester.”
The final cost of the project ran well toward $100,000 and took nearly 18 months to complete. Work began when Smith had the original structure moved further back into the lot and quartered round to form an ell for the new mansion. (The front of the original residence is visible today from the Sunoco gas station on Main Street.)
The mansion was built on grounds that sloped gently from the house and was situated to face west. The entire house was to measure about 80 feet in length and nearly 80 feet in breadth at its widest portion. It was a composite architectural design, incorporating features from both the Queen Anne and Colonial Revival styles.
Smith imported pink granite from Milford, Massachusetts as well as Perth Amboy brick the color of light straw to form the exterior walls of the first floor of the main part of the house. Stone parapets of Ashler granite and ornamental brick supported a broad veranda and circular towers. The second and third floors were finished in wood with the ornate gable and window treatments common to homes of that era. The house was topped by a steep and complex roof, complete with a paneled chimney with stone moldings. To the left of the front entrance, Smith had a porte cochere built, leading to the carriage house and inner gardens.
Smith’s carriage house stabled several fine horses and an array of expensive coaches. Later this carriage house would “stable” one of the town’s first Rolls Royces. The family also kept a large piggery, an undertaking of particular interest to Emma Lavender Smith, the Governor’s wife. Eventually, extensive grading was done to enhance the property with the planting of flower and vegetable gardens and the installation of a large fountain. Surrounded by ancient maples and meadow lands to the rear, the house was a stunning showpiece.
The interior of the Smith mansion was, in the words of a period visitor, “beautiful and elegant.” Entering the building, one passed through a vestibule with soft and vari-colored lights into a reception hall. The floor of this hall was laid in mosaic marble with woodwork of quartered oak. Above the room’s wainscoting, the walls were covered with ooze leather in dark red and buff shades. A large fireplace graced the northern end of the room, canopied by and exquisitely painted ceiling and further shaped by a large portiere of heavy plush curtain. From this opening, one stepped into the drawing room. A sizeable fireplace with Mexican onyx facings and Sienna marble underneath was built into the west wall, and the room’s wood furnishings were done in mahogany. As in the reception room, the 12-foot ceilings were hand-painted and ornately decorated. The end of the drawing room terminated in a large circular bay window which formed the base of the main tower. Butterfields’s design brought the drawing room into the dining room via a folding door of mahogany and heavy plush curtains. This allowed additional space for entertaining, as the further extension of this room made for space that was nearly 70 feet in length.
The dining room was, by far, the most imposing and artistic room in the mansion. In fact, Mrs. Smith came to refer to this room as “The Gem.” And what a gem it is! The 20-foot ceiling was built with panels and arches, ornamented with exquisite paintings of cupids, flowers and fruit. A frieze containing a succession of hunting scenes, and a mammoth fireplace of moss-green bricks on the east wall were lit by windows of plate and stained glass. A Louis Quatorze-style crystal chandelier was suspended from the dome, and the finishings and furniture were done in quartered oak. It truly was a room of elegance, befitting the frequent and lavish hospitality of the Smiths during their tenure in the mansion.
From the reception hall, a broad staircase rose to the family’s living quarters. A large tapestry of life-size figures depicting Washington passing through Trenton hung by the first landing. Near this hung a portrait of J.B. Smith. And then, turning sharply to the right and up to the second floor, one entered a large open hall, having a handsome oak railing around the stairway.
Opening from the hall were three chambers, all of which were finished in mahogany and decorated with a painter’s brush in floral and other delineations. The rear section of this floor was devoted to the nursery and a large, airy linen closet while the family’s quarters were directly over the drawing room. One feature of note was an ornately designed, huge bathtub in the private bath near Smith’s bedroom. The tub was made of white enamel with Grecian border over the copper and steel, and was complete with hot- and cold-water attachments. It had been shipped over rail from Boston to Manchester and into Hillsboro Bridge where it required six men to unload.
The third floor of the mansion contained three guest chambers, one of which was named “The Apple Blossom.” The woodwork in this room was ivory-white with furniture to match. The carpeting, walls and ceiling were covered with delicate designs of apple blossoms and a hand-painted silk spread adorned the bed. Domestics’ chambers and a 32-by-20 foot billiards room completed this floor.
Smith and his family lived here in comfort through his governorship and various enterprises on manufacturing. His lavish attention to detail and workmanship would later be extended to the renovation of the Congregational Church, which bears his name today. Eventually, though, Smith began to winter in Boston, spending the warmer months in his beloved mansion, and dying there at the age of 76. Mrs. Smith lived another 10 years, after her death, the house was closed.
The Smith’s youngest son, Norman, who lived then in Brookline, Massachusetts, inherited the property in 1926. He was inclined to raze the house that held so many memories, and to sell off the land rather than allow anyone else to occupy it. Word of his intentions reached Hillsboro, and a committee was formed to petition Norman to present the grounds and the building to the town. Smith traveled to Hillsboro in June and a bargain was struck. A flurry of canvassing and pledge cards raised the necessary monies for renovation, and, in August of 1926, Norman B. Smith deeded the mansion to the town of Hillsboro for a dollar, with the stipulation that his boyhood home forever remain in service to the community.
Compiled by Gail Burgess