Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Join as a sustainer and help unlock $10k. Just 68 sustainers to go!

Portsmouth Museum Weighs Historic Preservation And Climate Change Risk

A person in a blue shirt stands aside an old pipe at the Strawberry Banke museum in Portsmouth.
Annie Ropeik
Brian Goetz is deputy director of Portsmouth's Department of Public Works. In a way, his role is a government descendent of one of Portsmouth’s original colonists.

The historic Strawbery Banke district is the epicenter of climate change in Portsmouth. One of the city’s most popular tourist destinations, it's flooding more often due to seas and heavier rains.

Get NHPR's reporting about politics, the pandemic, and other top stories in your inbox — sign up for our newsletter today.

And the Strawbery Banke Museum is facing choices that might once have been unthinkable: filling the basements of historic homes with concrete.

It's an unconventional move that's one part of an effort to adapt to climate change in the part of the city that's most vulnerable to rising seas and heavier rains.

"We had to say, wait a second. One of the biggest threats that we've had to this site isn't related to tourism, isn't related to the decline in the stock market… it's related to water," said museum sustainability director Rodney Rowland. "And it seems like it's everywhere."

Rowland's museum is at located the epicenter of climate change in Portsmouth. One of the city’s most popular tourist destinations, it's flooding more often due to seas and heavier rains. Centuries of preserved culture are in jeopardy.

Now, the Strawbery Banke Museum, accustomed to thinking about the past, is turning toward the future: planning how to balance adaptation with historic preservation, and working with the city to tell its climate change story and set an example for the public.

The challenge the museum faces is evident in places like the 1700s-era Shapley-Drisco House. One of the oldest in the city, it’s situated little more than a football field’s length away from the tidal Piscataqua River.

A couple hours after a recent high tide, the rough stone basement of the house was wet and muddy. The highest, and increasingly high, tide levels will bring two feet or more of standing water into this dank space each month.

Rodney Rowland noted the puddles, mossy chimneys and damaged foundation as he peered down the stairs into the cramped basement.

The museum recently removed a sagging chimney from the Sherburne House, next door. It left a hole in the foundation that Rowland said has been full of tidewater ever since.

“Now we know why that chimney suffered,” he said. “Clearly the water is just there. It's completely turning the structure of those soils to nothing but goo.”

The neighborhood is at the lowest-lying point in Portsmouth, and it's facing layers of risk due to climate change: rising tides, more rain and stormwater flowing here from the rest of the city, and worsening storms and storm surges.

The area's vulnerability has forced the museum to consider serious interventions like filling in some of these flood-prone basements in order to save the historic houses above – something the National Park Service also now recommends as a climate adaptation for any cultural site.

At the same time, Strawbery Banke has a new focus: asking visitors to think about what's to come as the climate warms.

“The way our future is going to impact us is also really important, and it’s a message that we are uniquely able to tell,” Rowland said. “We're ground zero, and so why not teach about it at the same time we're trying to fix it?”

The center of Strawbery Banke is a grassy area known as Puddle Dock. For centuries, it was a tidal inlet used for fishing and trade by the native Abenaki people and then Europeans.

But a hundred or so years ago, looking for room to develop, the city filled in that waterway, with “sand and waste and anything that they could find to fill,” said Peter Britz, the environmental planning director in Portsmouth.

Britz said this kind of filled, low-lying area is common in cities along the East Coast and it's particularly vulnerable to climate change.

“When you look at natural soil, you're going to find different layers that are going to confine water … but usually it's a mix,” he said. “Whereas the fill, it's kind of unconsolidated and water can move through it easier.”

Britz is working on quantifying this and other climate risks across the city of Portsmouth. What he's found for sea level rise is grim: “As much as two feet by 2050 and six feet by 2100,” he said.

And Strawbery Banke is the most vulnerable part of town. It led Britz to partner with the museum on a new exhibit, called “Water has a Memory.”

On display in the exhibit room are artifacts showing the history of the city's infrastructure – hollowed-out logs that served as pipes in colonial days, and the iron ones that eventually replaced them; some of the city's first water meters, which encouraged early residents to think of water as a resource; and an old map showing how interwoven Portsmouth is with its shorelines.

These objects are on loan from the city Department of Public Works, where Brian Goetz is deputy director and, in a way, a government descendent of one of Portsmouth’s original colonists. Ichabod Goodwin, whose house was moved to Strawbery Banke from Islington Street, helped build the city’s first water lines, which were sold to Portsmouth to create the DPW.

In his modern-day role, Goetz wants visitors to this exhibit to understand their relationship with water and the way climate change and growth are affecting everyday infrastructure.

“Everything from when you turn your tap on, to what you flush down the toilet, to what falls on your roof rain-wise and drains and goes out to the stormwater system, can be impacted by things that you choose to do with your own property,” Goetz said.

On the last wall of the exhibit is a big flowchart around a house showing the many adaptations people can use to protect themselves from increasing water risks. Rain barrels can mitigate big flushes of stormwater that would otherwise flood your basement. Reducing pesticides and chemical cleaning products helps lower water treatment costs for the city helps lower treatment costs for the city, which frees up more money for adaptation.

It’s a shared system, said Rodney Rowland: what one house does affects all its neighbors.

“The latest [United Nations] report on climate change said that for us to make a difference, we have to have wholesale change in how humanity runs its life and makes decisions” he said. “So street by street, that's what we're trying to do here – is send that message, that you need to do your part while society is trying to do its part or while the DPW is trying to do its part, because it's going to be a joint effort that's going to see success.”

Success, in this case, is global action to lower carbon emissions and adapt to warming – and part of that is more thoughtful and sustainable management of water in a coastal city like Portsmouth.

The goal is to adapt willingly to change that scientists say is coming, to some degree, no matter what.

Annie has covered the environment, energy, climate change and the Seacoast region for NHPR since 2017. She leads the newsroom's climate reporting project, By Degrees.

You make NHPR possible.

NHPR is nonprofit and independent. We rely on readers like you to support the local, national, and international coverage on this website. Your support makes this news available to everyone.

Give today. A monthly donation of $5 makes a real difference.