A Dover home’s journey from jailhouse to historic jewel
As a child, Dennis Ciotti of Dover, New Hampshire, used to walk by a splendid three-story Georgian-style home on his daily trek to school. Big houses had fascinated the boy from the age of six, when his parents let him watch Gone with the Wind. The movie fired his imagination, and he fell in love with the grand plantations featured in the film. One day in 1963, Ciotti went by the Georgian-revival house, and the front door was open, allowing him to glimpse the grand, sweeping staircase in the front hall. The owner, Mrs. Brown, stood in the entrance, and he was seized by a strange impulse. “I’m going to own this house one day!” he called to her. “Is that so?” she said with a laugh. “Well, you best get on to school now!”
Fast-forward to today: Ciotti, a Dover city councilor, and his wife, Nancy LaRocque, own the Brown house, and Ciotti feels that he has come home. Despite the age of the house, Ciotti and LaRocque are only the third family to live there. After Mrs. Brown’s death, another couple lived there briefly and then the house stood empty. The second owners used only four of the 17 rooms. “They left the rest of the house closed off, so when we moved in, it was like opening a time capsule,” LaRocque says. “Much of the house is just as it was.”
Indeed, the Brown estate has a long, mostly distinguished, sometimes sensational history, being the site of the last public hanging in New Hampshire. On July 8, 1846, Andrew Howard of Rochester was hanged at the Strafford County Jail, which was then on Silver Street in Dover. Howard had murdered an elderly lady named Phebe Hanson, shooting her at her home during an attempted robbery. Howard was 25 years old and confessed to the crime; a date with the gallows was decreed. The hanging attracted nearly 3,000 people. A riot almost occurred because Sheriff Gorham Hoitt had set the gallows at the rear of the jail, where it was not easily visible from the street. Before the hanging, vendors sold food, bands played, and kids and dogs raced around the street. The mood was that of a carnival. Hoitt did the deed but was unnerved by what happened. Not long after, hangings were moved to the state prison at Concord, where they became private affairs.
Eventually, a new jail was built and the cell doors on Silver Street clanged shut for the last time. The horror of the Howard hanging began to recede from memory. A neighbor, E. L. Williams, had been eyeing the former jail site for some time, seeing great potential in the property. Wealthy and influential, he owned much of downtown Dover, including its vibrant mills and the Silver Fountain Inn, which sat across the street. His beloved daughter, Marguerite, was set to marry Philip Brown, his right-hand man. He wanted a suitable wedding gift, and the jail site with its proximity, extensive acreage, and easy access to the train, was perfect. Sparing no expense, he demolished the jailhouse but kept the foundation. Upon it he had workers construct a mansion with servants’ quarters, a carriage house, and every amenity and modern convenience available to a home built in 1890. Marguerite and her husband lived there for many years. After Philip’s death, she continued to live in the house until she died at age 98 in 1981.
Many original details remain in the house. The kitchen is like a scene from Downton Abbey with its rich, dark woods, wide-plank fir floors, and nine-foot slate sink installed by Marguerite’s father and still bearing the “Monson, Maine” brass manufacturing label. LaRocque added an island and dishwasher, and one window was removed to make space for a glass cabinet. However, she has made it a point to keep the kitchen a blend of the modern and historic. For this reason, she selected soapstone counters to connect the newer areas with the sink. Except for these details, the kitchen is untouched. “We even kept the same color scheme of brown and white,” she says.
The crown molding and coffered ceiling of the dining room are original and painted in soft white; a six-inch plate rail wraps the room, holding select pieces from LaRocque’s china collection. One-hundred-and-twenty-year-old crystal sconces grace the walls and the original chandelier, also more than a century old, hangs above the dining room table. It has always been electrified and when lit creates a dazzling display with its pineapple design and ropes of crystal beads.
“Mr. Williams was ahead of his time,” LaRocque says. “Everything in the house was ultramodern for its day—the house was fully electrified; he had installed a telephone, a furnace, indoor plumbing, even a central vacuum system, which still works although it sparks so dreadfully we don’t use it.”
LaRocque was an interior designer for many years and a collector of antiques, so the rooms show her deft touch with color, furniture, and accents. Her antique sideboard, breakfront, and dining room set suit the formal dining room and her choice of Wedgwood blue for the walls complements the creamy moldings. “All the walls were white; there was no color,” she says. “I went with a ceramic paint to give the room depth and luster and play off the marvelous lighting. In terms of furniture, everything looked like it belonged the minute we moved in. It was almost like the house was waiting for us.”
The front parlor has an Asian feel with its sage-green walls that echo the hues of the jade vases on the mantel. A taupe-colored sofa coordinates with the molding and trim, the silky fabric echoing the patina of a cream-and-gold antique French writing desk in one corner. The room feels cozy and welcoming.
It is easy to see why the front hall captivated Ciotti years ago. The broad front door opens into a spacious hallway extending from the front to the back of the house. The couple decorated the hallway with a slim sofa and a few display cases showing their various collections of glassware and other mementos, but mostly the focus is on the broad, sweeping staircase that begs for women in ball gowns to make an entrance.
“Those are the original risers on the stairs,” LaRocque says. “The floors, light switches, and doors are all original to the home, and the keys still work in the doors. These are also the original fanlights and leaded windows flanking the door.”
Across the hall is the formal living room, also done in a sage green. Here, original cabinets line the walls and centuries-old sconces light the room at key intervals. A white coffered ceiling adds elegance. LaRocque chose an antique white sleigh sofa with coordinating white-and-silver plush chairs to enhance the cool elegance of the room. A round, multi-drawered table in gleaming mahogany offsets the pale hues with its rich brown luster. One conversation piece is the huge cast-iron pot hanging in the fireplace. It is original to the house.
Also impressive is the huge piece of white Carrara marble, brought over from Europe, which forms a shelf in the window overlooking the garden. “This is original to the house as well,” LaRocque says. “And it’s one solid piece that weighs a ton and must have cost a fortune to bring over.”
The upstairs bedrooms each have their own bath, and all the bath fixtures—tubs and toilets—are original. The massive closets have an ingenious lighting system, which, again, came with the house. “There is a thin brass plate that is triggered when you open the door,” LaRocque says. “This turns on the light. It’s amazing that they had such technology then!”
Back stairs lead down from the bedrooms to the kitchen and below to the basement and the remains of the jailhouse. “The basement walls are the original jailhouse foundation. They are 12 inches thick and uniquely constructed,” Ciotti says. “The masons did plaster and lath work on both the inside and outside walls. And the granite blocks weren’t just thrown together to make a wall; they were precisely cut and fitted, resulting in a very thick and well-insulated base.”
The basement is the only part of the house that LaRocque finds “spooky.” The jail cells where criminals like Andrew Howard once languished are still intact. Tucked in the cellar, they almost blend into the wood shop except for the rusty iron doors still marking their location. When asked if they have experienced ghostly happenings, the couple says no. “I’ve been here alone at night many times and never noticed anything,” she says. “It’s just that the basement gives me an odd feeling.”
The couple is delighted to own the historic Brown house. “I see this as a house made for families, for entertaining,” LaRocque says. “I had a garden party here with 98 people in attendance, and you could tell that this home was made for such gatherings. Seeing the crystal chandeliers lit, the furniture gleaming, and people moving throughout the house and having a good time was perfect. We are a blended family; I think the house was meant for us, and we were meant to bring the house back to life.”