Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Portico, portico, who's got the portico?

or, How the Donnell House Portico came back home to New Bern

By John B. Green III

Peter B. Sandbeck and John B. Green III, portico porters, 1985.
In a previous post (Vanished New Bern, No.3) we described the destruction of the John R. Donnell House and the scattering of its various parts.

The John R. Donnell House was perhaps New Bern's finest residence of the Federal Period.   Constructed for Judge Donnell between 1816 and 1819, the house and adjacent law office displayed the handiwork of Asa King, New Bern's premier builder of that time.  The house was quadrupled in size by a three-story apartment building addition to the rear in the 1920s and throughout much of the 20th century was known as the Hughes Apartments.  A spectacular fire on January 24, 1970 destroyed the apartment house addition and damaged the original house.  The Donnell house was stripped of its fine architectural details and demolished following the fire.  Some of the interior woodwork was taken to Mobile, Alabama and used in the construction of a new home, while the front portico and other elements were taken to Charlotte.  The Donnell law office was moved intact to nearby Trent Woods.   After many years of storage, the Donnell House portico was returned to New Bern in April 1985 and is now displayed in the New Bern Academy Museum.

John R. Donnell House and Office, 712 Craven Street, photo c. 1965.
The paragraph above makes it seem as though the location of the Judge Donnell portico had always been known, yet such was not the case.  Although it was generally remembered that various architectural elements of the Donnell house had been sold away from New Bern, the fate of the portico had been all but forgotten.  So it came as quite a surprise to the members of the New Bern Historical Society when Dr. C. Hal Chaplin of Charlotte, North Carolina contacted the society in 1985 with news of the portico.  He informed them that he had the portico and would like to return it to New Bern.  Dr. Chaplin had purchased the portico and other woodwork in 1970 with the intention of incorporating the material into a new house he was building.  He never used the portico and it was stored in pieces in his garage where his children played on and under it.

Donnell House portico in situ, 1936. Photo by Frances Benjamin Johnston.
After some discussion (What do we with do with a portico?), Dr. Chaplin's kind offer was accepted and a crack team of professional portico porters was assembled (Peter B. Sandbeck and John B. Green III).  Dispatched on April 21, 1985 in a truck borrowed from Askew's Hardware, the intrepid pair made their way to Charlotte, loaded up the portico, posed for a photograph (see above) and returned to New Bern the next day.  Once in New Bern they drove the portico up Craven Street to its former site, then out National Avenue and Oaks Road to a disused dairy barn owned by Mr. F. Murray Phillips where the portico was to be stored.  The Donnell portico would remain there for nearly two years before a permanent home was found for it.

Donnell House portico as displayed in the New Bern Academy Museum, 1990.
In February 1987 the New Bern Historical Society donated the portico to the Tryon Palace Historic Sites and Gardens for display in the New Bern Academy Museum.  The portico made one final trip from the dairy barn to the Academy where, over the next three years, it was studied, reassembled, and restored.  The Donnell House portico became the centerpiece of the architectural history room of the Academy museum when it opened in December 1990.  The portico had finally returned to public view after an absence of twenty years.