Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Rock Rest

(Image courtesy of Maine Preservation)

We visited the house above for a field trip on April 1st. It's called Rock Rest and it was a guesthouse for African-Americans run by Clayton and Hazel Sinclair, during the summer months from the 1940s into the 1970s. It's not currently open to visitors as an historic house. However, Valerie Cunningham, the head of the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail and the local expert on Portsmouth black history, used to work at the guesthouse and has spearheaded the preservation efforts. Under her guidance, the house has gotten some important attention - here's a link to a National Trust for Historic Preservation newsletter with cover article on Rock Rest - and certainly deserves more.

Rock Rest has a lot of things going for it, from a historical perspective. It was the home of an African American family in a region - southern Maine - that never had a majority of minorities. The house is also well-situated to take advantage of Valerie's work with Portsmouth black history, including the Heritage Trail.

But the real beauty of this house, I think, is similar to what makes the Shapley-Drisco House at SBM one of my favorite houses. Since the time period of Rock Rest is so recent (the Sinclairs lived here from the 1930s to the 1990s), the house maintains this wonderful nostalgic quality. Strawbery Banke visitors walk into the 1950s side of the Shapley-Drisco House and exclaim, "This was my [mother's, grandmother's, aunt's] living room!" Their reactions are immediate, emotional, and very unlike their reactions to the 1790s side of the house.

I think that Rock Rest has much of that same appeal. Here is history. But here also is a space that reminds us all a little bit of a departed relative's house, of summers by the sea, of bunking up with cousins and friends due to lack of space, and of kindly older couples who seemed like family. Valerie is hoping that the house becomes a bed and breakfast, with an interpretative component. I think that sounds just about right.

(If you want to read more about Rock Rest, here's a 2006 article from the Portsmouth Herald. Better yet, check out the Rock Rest collection in the UNH Library's Special Collections. Happy digging!)

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