Celebrating Lilacs through History and Art at Wentworth-Coolidge

The New Hampshire outdoors was a great place to be this Memorial Day weekend, especially on the lawn of Portsmouth’s historic Wentworth-Coolidge Mansion during the annual Lilac Festival. The serenity of the Little Harbor seaside was enriched through the experience of…

history,Little Harbor Wentworth Coolidge Anchorart,

Wentworth Coolidge Art Gallery
Artwork by Hannah Phelps

and adorably fuzzy animals,

Sea Hill Farms Alpaca
Sea Hill Farms Alpaca

each with their own connection to this landscape. But one thing was noticeably absent- the lilac flowers.

The aromatic state flower once grew thick upon these grounds. The lilacs were planted as early as the 1750s by the Royal Governor Benning Wentworth’s estate, making them the oldest in the country. However, the root-rotting honey fungus Armillaria all but destroyed them. The Wentworth-Coolidge Commission has been hard at work eradicating the infection and restoring lilacs to the gardens once again. According to Guy Giunta, Chair of the Governor’s Commission on Lilacs and Wildflowers, the outlook is “optimistic.”

Wentworth Coolidge Lilac Nursery
Young lilacs in the Wentworth-Coolidge Nursery

Strolling the grounds on such a day it was easy to imagine what it must have once been like. About a dozen artists were painting en plein air in the tradition established by the Coolidge family, well known patrons of the arts who occupied the mansion between 1886 and 1954.

En Plein Air Artist at Wentworht-Coolidge
The Coolidge family once invited Boston artists to paint in the beautiful summertime gardens

Touring the mansion one might picture the Wentworth and Coolidge families entertaining their guests in one of the many rooms that overlooked the gardens where the lilacs once grew, and where they may hopefully grow again.

Inside the Wentworth-Coolidge MansionAnd for anyone that browsed through Vinette Varvaro’s unique gallery, her prints of the dark, heart-shaped leaves and tiny bursts of color were a reminder as to why the flower has held the admiration of New Englanders for centuries.

Lilac Scanner Artwork by Vinette Varvaro

Although there were very few blooms, the lilacs were a strongly felt presence through the work of the artists and the conservation efforts of the Wentworth-Coolidge Commission. And until the lilacs are restored, the Wentworth-Coolidge Mansion remains as only one of the most beautiful spots in Portsmouth. The perfect setting for a quiet stroll along the harbor, a picnic on the lawn, a glimpse into history.

More Photographs from My Trip:

Special thanks to Sandy Phelps and all the event volunteers.



Jackie Raiford, New Hampshire State Parks Intern

I'm a graduate student working towards my Masters in Conservation Biology at Antioch University New England. My research interests include the conservation of urban green spaces for the physical and psychological health of communities. I lived for the first 24 years of my life in Rockville, Maryland just north of Washington D.C. I have traveled a little both domestically and abroad, and lived for six months in Australia. I also work as a dance and fitness instructor, and am certified by the American Council on Exercise.

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