A Legacy Preserved
The Abbot-Spalding House – Nashua’s historical centerpiece – preserves the lifestyle and spirit of its notable occupants – Daniel Abbot, called “Father of Nashua” and General William Spalding.
By Dean Dexter
To visit Nashua’s Abbot-Spalding House is to be transported into another era, gently carried away to a way of life not seen in the Gate City for generations. Although this home is not the largest or most imposing residence in a city known for its fine vintage mansions, many of which may be seen heading north along Concord Street toward Greeley Park, it just may be the most historic. And its classic Federal Revival style, with its understated elegance and sleek lines, speaks quietly of the very best of New England Colonial architecture.
In the men’s library, off the front entrance, the formidable Daniel Abbot, “Father of Nashua,” held forth with great and small figures of his day. Here he commiserated with the likes of Daniel Webster, a lifelong friend. The two had “read law” together as fledgling barristers. Franklin Pierce, congressman and senator and eventually New Hampshire’s only U.S. president, was also often a guest here. A portrait of a young Pierce hangs over the mantel. There is also a framed handwritten letter from the former president on the wall. Around the fireplace are 18th-century Delft tiles depicting Biblical scenes.
This room, like the others in the manse, is elegantly appointed, featuring hand-polished mahogany and cherry bookcases, tables and chairs. There is even a silk hat resting on a seat — all appearing as if these great men of history had just up and left the room a moment ago, to stroll outside under big oak trees for a bit of air, and maybe to smoke long black cigars after a bit of brandy or rum by the hearth. Pierce and Webster were not above such indulgences, and being a generous host perhaps Abbot was not either. One can only imagine such a scene, and the ambience of this old house lends itself to such a fantasy.
Abbot was a Harvard graduate. After finishing his law studies with Webster, he purchased the home in 1803 from one John Lund shortly after it was built. The area was then a primitive river village called Dunstable.
In this home Nashua’s Unitarian Church was founded. Here, important people of the region gathered to incorporate what would become the Nashua Manufacturing Corporation, one of the premier textile mills in New England. It would be hard to overestimate the place Daniel Abbot has in the history of Nashua and southern New Hampshire. His barn and stables were on the site of the present Hunt Library. His lawn extended to where the soldier’s monument now stands on the knoll overlooking the city. Abbot was president of the Boston & Lowell railroad, headed the local bank, served as a state legislator and was a pioneer in the manufacture of textiles. Such a home is worthy of a man like this.
But as interesting as the life of Daniel Abbot is, it is the house that now engages the visitor. When Abbot died in 1853, a year into the antebellum presidency of his friend Pierce, the home passed to his daughter, then on to a George Perham in 1842, who added a tower, “modernizing” the building into what might now be considered a rather garish Victorian. The house was rescued when a prominent banker and city official, General William Spalding, purchased it in 1905 for “one dollar and other valuable considerations” from a Henry Lessard. Spalding later established a successful antique business, with stores in New York City, Boston and on Cape Cod. A tasteful collector with a deep interest in history, Spalding removed the tower and restored the home to the Federalist style, outfitting it with antiques and adding molding and panels of French stenciled wallpaper. The house was left to his son and daughter after his death in 1922.
In 1978 Sylvia Spalding, the general’s unmarried daughter and last surviving family member, sold the house to the Nashua Historical Society. She donated its contents to the Society and the collection includes such 18th- and 19th-century treasures as grandfather clocks, a high-boy chest, Persian rugs, Staffordshire china, Chippendale chairs and vintage children’s toys. There are also bookcases and tables designed by her brother, Dexter, who worked for the Old Colony Furniture Co. Most items date to the Spaldings, although the Society recently received a surprise gift of Daniel Abbot’s complete law library, which is now being catalogued.
Sylvia remembered life here as warm and joyful. She would speak of the evening dances her parents hosted in the downstairs hallway by the curved staircase, in front of the large fireplace under the arch. She remained in the house until 1983, and was an enthusiastic member of the Society. Sylvia requested that the home be used as a museum and teaching resource for the community, a legacy the Society carefully honors. The museum is open to visitors during the summer months, and offers ongoing learning programs for area students and such organizations as the Girl Scouts.
The museum section includes eight rooms, fully restored after nearly four years of repair and reconstruction completed in 1999. The hardwood floors, installed by Spalding, are quarter-sawn oak. In the upstairs bedrooms the floors are pine. Sylvia’s former bedroom is unique in that the floor’s wide hard pine boards were installed in Abbot’s era and harvested from the property itself. A five-room apartment located in the rear is reserved for a resident caretaker. It was once the mud room, kitchen and storage space during the Spalding period. A rare outdoor Victorian fountain featuring a cherub, dating to the Perham ownership, will be rededicated on the grounds in August following a two-year restoration.
The house is as much a treasure for the clues and nuances it holds of the lives who resided here, as it is for the beauty its architecture lends to a city it predates.
The Abbot-Spalding House is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the New Hampshire State Register of Historic Places (Dept. of Cultural Resources). For more information contact The Nashua Historical Society at (603) 883-0015 or visit www.nashuahistoricalsociety.org. NH Writer and historian Dean Dexter lives in Penacook.