Article by R ∴ W ∴ Brother Roderick M. MacDonald and R ∴ W ∴ Brother Karl R. Olson
In the late Colonial Period, Portsmouth was a major east coast seaport and, as the capital of colonial New Hampshire, the hub of activity for the Colony of New Hampshire. Among the more significant institutions in colonial Portsmouth was St John’s Lodge No. 1, which had been constituted from the Grand Master of Masons in England in 1736. The town also boasted a number of Taverns that served as the community’s “social centers”. In 1766 a local merchant and member of St. John’s Lodge John Stavers built a new tavern called the Earl of Halifax Tavern and through the encouragement of his fellow Freemasons, included a room on the third floor large enough to accommodate the regular meetings of the Lodge.
The building contained a number of innovations for its time. Three-story wooden structures were relatively rare in areas north of Boston, but even rarer was the placement of chimneys on both ends of the building rather than the central chimney and fireplaces so common to colonial New England construction. Stavers was at first criticized for this, but that criticism died quickly when it proved to be an extremely efficient method of heating the structure. Stavers even went to the extent of placing sand between the second-floor ceiling and third story floor so his guests in the second-floor bedrooms would not be disturbed by the noise coming from the third-floor meeting room.
His business as a tavern owner appears to have been very successful until the American colonies saw their long standing relationship with and ties to Great Britain begin to decline rapidly. As events leading to the American Revolution rapidly unfolded, Stavers was rumored by many in Portsmouth to “show loyalists sympathies”. Stavers denied this and went as far as to drop the name Earl of Halifax Tavern and rename his business the William Pitt Tavern. William Pitt, although a former British Prime Minister, was highly thought of by American colonists for sending troops to North America to end the French and Indian Wars and his opposition to British tax and control policies aimed at the Americans in the 1766-1774 era.
The taverns last “hurrah” came on July 8, 1789 when four members of St. John’s lodge (John Sullivan, Hall Jackson, Joseph Bass, Nathaniel Folsom) and one member from Rising Sun Lodge in Keene, N.H., (Alpheus Moore) met to form the Grand Masonic Lodge of New Hampshire and elect Major General John Sullivan the first Grand Master of New Hampshire. St John’s Lodge continued to meet there until 1792 when they moved to other local meeting places in the city of Portsmouth.
John Stavers died in 1797, passing his tavern to his two daughters who apparently had little luck keeping it as a profitable business. They finally closed the tavern for good a few years later and were said to have subdivided it between their two families as living quarters. This began a two centuries decline whereby the building was further divided into smaller and smaller apartments eventually leaving the structure a deteriorating tenement that by the early 1960s stood condemned.
During the late 1950s, a historic building preservation organization was launched to save as many of the city’s old “South End” historic homes as possible (including the Pitt Tavern). By 1964 this group had evolved into Strawbery Banke. They reached out to the Grand Lodge of New Hampshire to see if a partnership could be formed to preserve this historic structure. In 1964 at the 175th Anniversary of the founding of Grand Lodge, several members got together and placed a commemorative plaque on the building to remember what part it played in the founding of our Grand Lodge. By 1977 an agreement was formulated to renovate the structure with a Lodge Room on the third floor, a Masonic Museum on the second floor, and Strawbery Banke using the first floor. A capital campaign ensued and it took nearly seven years to raise the funds and renovate the structure.
Through the fundraising efforts of the Grand Lodge committee, a decision was made to form William Pitt Tavern Lodge No. 1789. The Lodge was chartered on July 8, 1983 as a special lodge, not empowered to perform the symbolic degrees, but to raise funds necessary to restore and maintain the tavern, with a further goal to provide a place where Lodges in this jurisdiction could hold a meeting and confirm degrees if they wished.
All these years later, the Grand Lodge of New Hampshire is one of the few if not the only Grand Lodge in the United States to retain the original meeting room where this Grand Lodge was formed, still consecrated as a Lodge room where constituent Lodges can meet and confer degrees in its historic confines.