In colonial times Portsmouth was a busy seaport and a hub of activity in the seacoast area of New Hampshire. St Johns Lodge had been constituted from the Grand Master of Masons in England in Portsmouth in 1736. In 1766 by Brother John Stavers built a new tavern called the Earl of Halifax Tavern and through encouragement of the local Freemasons, he built a room on the third floor large enough to accommodate the meetings.
During the American Revolution the tavern’s name went out of favor and was renamed for William Pitt, a man who argued in the British parliament that the colonists should not be taxed and this name was much better received by the local colonists.
Through its use as a Masonic meeting place, five Lodges located in New Hampshire came together to form the Grand Lodge of New Hampshire on July 8, 1789. The Grand Lodge as well as St Johns Lodge continued to meet there until 1792 when they moved to other local meeting places.
For the next two centuries the building went from being used as a tavern to a local tenement house and its history was forgotten. However, 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 Grand Lodge’s founding. During this time frame, Strawbery Banke, a historic building preservation organization, was being formed as they saw the early history of Portsmouth was soon to be demolished. They reached out to the Grand Lodge of New Hampshire to see if a partnership could be formed to preserve this historic structure. 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, the group came up with the idea of forming 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.
Today, more than 225 years later, the Grand Lodge of New Hampshire is one of the few if not only Grand Lodge in the United States to have the original building where the Grand Lodge was formed still in use with a Lodge room where its Chartered Lodges can meet and confer degrees as in days of old.
William Pitt Tavern is located at 416 Court Street, Portsmouth, NH 03801.
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