Rundlet-May House

Rundlet-May House

Comfort, Convenience, Early Innovations

Photograph courtesy of Peter Michaud

 

In 1807, on a man-made hill rising above Middle Street in Portsmouth, James and Jane Rundlet built their stately neoclassical-style home just far enough outside of town to allow them to plan orchards, flower beds, a carriage barn, and working yard. Equipped with the latest technologies, the house was large enough to accommodate their growing family, and designed to run efficiently and offer luxury and comfort to all those in the household. From a Rumford cooking range with an elaborate venting system, third floor smoke chamber, and a set kettle for heating water; to an early coal-fired central heating system; each detail at the Rundlet home was carefully constructed to impress. The furnishing throughout the house, including the best examples of Portsmouth furniture, also make this an elegant house dedicated to style and fashion.

Rundlet-May House represents four generations of one family, the Rundlets and Mays, who continuously occupied the space until it was donated to Historic New England in 1971. The house tells a story of change over time; the Rundlet’s Rumford roaster is in the same room as the May’s General Electric range, and an eighteenth-century inkwell is found above a cable television outlet. The house challenges us to identify the changes, both technological and decorative, and develop an understanding of when and why they occurred.

James and Jane Rundlet

James Rundlet (1772-1852) was born in Exeter, New Hampshire, the son of a yeoman who owned a successful blacksmith shop and a slaughterhouse, as well as a shop attached to his house. James attended the newly-formed Phillips Academy in Exeter where he concentrated on sciences and technology studies. At twenty-two, he came to Portsmouth and began as a commission merchant, and delved into commercial enterprises such as importing limes from the West Indies. He then imported and sold textiles, and eventually opened his own dry goods shop on Market Street. His investments in two woolen mills, in Amesbury, Massachusetts and Salmon Falls, New Hampshire, boosted his fortune when he was commissioned to provide uniforms for the War of 1812. When he died, he was one of the wealthiest businessmen in Portsmouth. He married Jane Hill (1774-1849), the daughter of a successful Portsmouth blacksmith. Just eleven months after their marriage in 1795, Jane Rundlet gave birth to their first child, Harriet (1795-1840). Twelve more children followed, some of whom did not live to adulthood: Caroline (1797-1880), William (1800-1846), Elizabeth (1802-1810), Edward (1804-1805), Edward (1805-1874), John Samuel (1807-1835), George (1808-1830), Alfred (1811-1851), Elizabeth Jane (1813-1839), James (1815-1855), Louisa Catherine (1817-1895), and Frances Matilda (1824-1834).      

Langley Boardman

Langley Boardman (1774-1833) was born in Ipswich, Massachusetts and worked there briefly until he moved to Portsmouth, New Hampshire to open a shop on Ladd Street at age twenty-four. Inspired by the furniture forms found in Salem, Massachusetts, Boardman’s pieces had an elegance and attention to quality materials that sealed his reputation early. Within a year he was prepared with a ready-made line of furniture of the newest forms, including lady’s secretaries, night tables, and lolling chairs. Within a few years of his arrival he was investing in land and shipping. Some of the best examples of Boardman’s furniture and Portsmouth furniture can be found in Rundlet-May House. This image of Langley Boardman is courtesy of Portsmouth Historical Society, John Paul Jones House Museum, photograph by Ralph Morang.

Staff Employed at the Rundlets' House

In 1810, a federal census of the Rundlet household revealed that the household consisted of more than just family members; the addition of young unnamed men and women were very likely domestic staff members. In James Rundlets’ account ledgers, names of several female household staff members appear, which include Sarah Medes and Mary Lang, listed for several years, whereas some names only appear for a brief time, such as Elizabeth Bradbury or Jane Roberts. A house as large as the Rundlet home would have had the expectation of staff working on site; and the house was built with a staff staircase.

Louisa Catherine Rundlet

Daughter Louisa Catherine Rundlet (1817-1895) was the twelfth child of James and Jane Rundlet. In 1840, she married the Hartford-born Savannah merchant, George Hall May. When her husband died prematurely in 1858, Louisa and her twins James and Jane Rundlet May moved back into the family home on Middle Street.

Dr. James Rundlet May and Mary Morison May

James Rundlet May (1841-1918) and Mary Ann Morison (1844-1936) made many personal touches to the house that can still be seen today, including Mary’s attention to the gardens. James Rundlet May was the son of Louisa Catherine Rundlet May. He was a doctor and practiced out of the family home during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, working as an assistant surgeon in the Navy during the Civil War. James Rundlet May loved dogs and the family had several dogs in the household; he also co-founded New Hampshire’s chapter of the SPCA and served as its director and president. In 1881, he married Mary Ann Morison who grew up in the Lord family home in Portsmouth, now known as the John Paul Jones House. Her influence on the gardens were substantial; she updated the flower varieties while preserving the original paths first laid out by James and Jane Rundlet when the house was built.

Ralph May and Gladys May

Ralph May (1882-1973) was the only child of James Rundlet May and Mary Morison May and was the last member of the family to live in the mansion on Middle Street. He grew up in the family home, left to attend Harvard, and kept the house as a summer retreat with his second wife Gladys Weir Smyth (1890-1986). Gladys embraced the family home and with Ralph decided to keep the furnishings and wallpapers as they had always been. Gladys was an active member of the Portsmouth Hospital Guild, the Portsmouth Athenaeum, and supported many causes. She died at her home in Cambridge several years after Ralph May’s death. Ralph was actively involved with many historical associations in Portsmouth, and was known as a local historian who wrote poems, essays, and histories of his hometown of Portsmouth.

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