Durham's Smith Chapel seeks historical recognition

On March 1, 2011

  • The Smith Chapel in Durham is seeking historical recognition. Courtesy

The town of Durham is seeking historical recognition for Smith Chapel, located on the banks of the Oyster River at 45 Mill Pond Road. The town is hoping the chapel will become part of the New Hampshire Division of Historic Resources and the National Register of Historic Places.

Being on the national register would put the chapel on an official federal list of historic buildings and sites significant to American history and architecture. Smith Chapel would join historic sites such as former president Franklin Pierce's homestead, along with many of New Hampshire's iconic covered bridges.  

Durham resident and member of the Historic District Heritage Commission Andrea Bodo is working with the New Hampshire Division of Cultural Resources to apply for grants from the state to restore the chapel.

"We have been discussing it for a while, but the serious pursuit of listing the chapel on the national register started three months ago," Bodo said.

According to the archives on the town of Durham's website, Smith Chapel was built for and named after Hamilton Smith, who died in a boating incident on the Oyster River in 1900. His wife, Alice Congreve, had it built in Smith's memory.

"The connection of Hamilton Smith with UNH is significant," Bodo said.

Hamilton Smith Hall, home of the English department at the University of New Hampshire, was also named after Hamilton Smith. Congreve Hall, home to 276 UNH students, was named after Alice Congreve's family. In addition, the former dormitory on campus, Smith Hall, was named for Smith's wife, Alice Congreve Smith.

Hamilton Smith was a wealthy and well-known philanthropist. He was originally from Louisville, Ky., but lived in Durham when he was young and attended the Durham Academy.  He was an engineer and developed effective techniques for coal, gold and copper mining. He helped develop the London Underground, and founded the Exploration Co., Limited, headquartered in New York.

He married Alice Congreve. Congreve's family founded Congreve Rockets, which were used by the British at the battle of Fort McHenry in the War of 1812. They were described as "the rocket's red glare," in Francis Scott Key's National Anthem.  

"[Smith Chapel] was built on the estate property which ran from Main Street to Mill Pond Road," Dick Lord, co-president of the Durham Historical Society, said.

When Hamilton Smith retired in the late 1800s, he returned to Durham. He converted an ordinary house to a mansion and added a red tower. The estate spanned 70 acres, which included a carriage house, a stable, a tennis court, and many gardens and trails. Across the street from the chapel, where St. George's Episcopal Church now stands, was an extensive garden that was open to the public.

"The Smith Chapel is modeled in English Gothic with stone buttresses at each corner after the chapel in England, of which the father of Alfred Lord Tennyson, Britain's renowned poet laureate, was rector," Bodo said.  

The town has bonded $71,000 to repair the building's 100-year-old roof and to restore its six stained glass windows.

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