Coffinhurst Building / Landmark in Madbury | World Anvil

Coffinhurst

Coffinhurst (/ˈkɔ fɪnˌhɜːst/) is the principal residence of the Coffin family, situated high on the crest of Garrison Hill in Madbury, New Hampshire. Built between 1812 and 1814 as a wedding gift from Samuel Coffin to his new bride, Caroline (Orcutt) Coffin, it has been home to seven generations of the Coffin family. It replaced the original Coffinhurst, constructed in 1717 by Barnabas Coffin, now a ruin referred to as the “Old House.” The primary access to the property is a 3-mile long, steep and twisting private drive that winds its way down from the house to meet Coffin Road, just east of the Old Coach Road between Durham and Dover.

The Gothic Châteauesque great house was designed by noted Portland architect Arlo Searles Flagg, who resided in what is now the Gatehouse during his two-year oversight of the building's construction. He also designed the adjoining carriage house, and the Coffin family mausoleum in the Garrison Hill Cemetery. According to Coffin family archives from 1815, the total cost to build and furnish Coffinhurst was nearly $50,000, the equivalent of over $700,000 today.

The 32-room, three-story mansion stands upon a 440-acre country estate that encompasses most of Garrison Hill, with panoramic views of Little Bay and the Piscataqua Estuary, and a commanding vantage point overlooking the village of Coffins Landing and nearly the whole town of Madbury. Amenities include tennis courts, a swimming pool, stables and a large carriage house, a substantial timber-framed barn, several outbuildings, formal floral gardens, greenhouses, and miles of walking paths.

Exterior

The building’s peculiarly asymmetrical, highly ornamented exterior is faced with locally quarried New Hampshire granite trimmed with limestone from western Massachusetts. Among its many unique features are several pinnacles, crocketed dormers, buttresses, and even gargoyles. A tall, steeply tapering pyramidal roof of wine-red slate, surmounted by a matched pair of soaring weathered copper spires, covers the central Great Hall, surrounded by variously sized smaller sloped slate peaks, all interspersed with the tall chimneys of over 25 fireplaces.

The imposing, multi-gabled façade overlooks the broad sloping expanse of the South Lawn, surrounded by a neatly trimmed low hedge. An oversized porte cochere protects the main entryway, flanked by semi-circular porches, one of which leads to an octagonal first floor study, with separate access to the formal gardens.

Interior

Massive oaken doors open from the porte cochere and vestibule into the building’s main reception area – the majestic Great Hall, with its enormous carved limestone fireplace, and its grand staircase, balconies, and galleries. All the railings, doors, window casings and coffered ceilings are of carved, stained oak, maintaining the medieval theme of the house and lending an air of power and dignity to the entire space.

Upon the paneled walls are hung the portraits of numerous noteworthy Coffin ancestors, dating back to the seventeenth century. The most magnificent of these, a life-size full length portrait of Captain Peter Coffin, painted by Augustine Clement in 1671, holds pride of place over the mantlepiece.

Off the Great Hall are the music room to the east and the mahogany-paneled library to the west, as well as a drawing room with adjoining conservatory and a second private study. Beyond is the main dining room, which is connected to the solarium and the kitchen. There is also a private chapel on the first floor, served by a hallway that connects the Great Hall with another stairway to the upper floors, which contain the personal accommodations and living quarters for the family.

In addition to the two stairways, an electric elevator provides access from the kitchen to the second and third floors. A small door at the end of a third story hallway opens to several interconnected attic spaces that have collected the family’s dusty memories for over a century. The cellar is carved directly from the bedrock granite of Garrison Hill, with the quarried stones used in the building’s construction, as well as in some of the outbuildings.

In the private study, a secret panel to the right of the fireplace, activated by a wire attached to a small ring concealed under the mantlepiece, reveals a hidden room, with a ladder that leads all the way to the attic, as well as down to the cellar, through a tight chaseway next to the chimney. Similarly, a disguised hatch in the floor of the kitchen opens to a steep, narrow stair that winds down into the cellar. These and other architectural anomalies have led some to believe Coffinhurst may have been a stop on the Underground Railroad.

The Willard Clock

In the Great Hall stands an imposing, ornately carved tall-case clock, which has been chiming the hours at Coffinhurst since it was first placed there in 1815. Custom crafted at the Washington Street workshop of celebrated Boston clockmaker Simon Willard, among the preeminent horologists of his time, the exquisite grandfather clock was specially commissioned by Nathaniel Coffin as a housewarming gift for his son and daughter-in-law, and has been keeping near-perfect time ever since. A brass plaque affixed to the antique timepiece reads, “Given by Nathaniel Coffin as a gift to his son Samuel Coffin and his wife Caroline. June, 1815.” The clockface bears the personal signature of Simon Willard himself. The hours and quarter hours are marked by the ringing of Saint Michael’s Chime.

Grounds

Along with the South Lawn, the grounds immediately surrounding the main house feature formal gardens, terraced wildflower fields, several rock gardens, and a rose garden, as well as vegetable gardens and an orchard. The remainder of the estate is forested for the most part, and crossed by many small streams and brooks, providing habitat for fish, birds and waterfowl, small animals, and larger game such as deer, moose and even the occasional bear. There are a number of small ponds on the property as well.

There are also several comfortable “cottages” and “cabins” on the grounds, which have been constructed and expanded over the years as guest houses for visitors and private residences for the families of married Coffin children. Among these well-appointed outbuildings are the Orchard Cottage, the Lodge, Cliffside Cabin, Hedgeway Cottage and the Meadow Cabin.

Several greenhouses provide the annual and perennial plants which adorn the gardens in the summertime. They also produce the seedlings for the vegetable gardens in spring, as well as many of the shrubs and ornamental plants that can be seen throughout the estate.

The Iron Gates

The entrance to Coffinhurst is marked by a pair of imposing iron gates, set within a massive granite Gothic arch that spans the lane leading up to the house. An inscription carved in block letters at the apex of the arch declares simply, "COFFIN." The heavy gates themselves, ornamentally wrought and towering twenty feet to fiil the entire archway, are each emblazoned with the arms of the family's revered progenitor, Tristram Coffyn. Just inside the gates, to the right of the road, is a small two-bedroom stone cottage known as "the Gatehouse," which serves as the home of Chester Blackwood, the caretaker, and his family. He is responsible for opening the gates in the morning, and closing them in the evening.

The Family Cemetery

The colonial-era Garrison Hill Cemetery is located on the Coffinhurst property, about half a mile northwest of the main residence, surrounded by an ancient iron fence near the ruins of the Old House. It has served as the final resting place for generations of the Coffin family since colonial times. It also contains the graves of several early settlers in the area, as well as those of others who have been associated with the family or the property over the years.

In the center of the cemetery stands the stern French Gothic Coffin family mausoleum. The granite and limestone tomb was the third building on the property designed by Arlo Flagg. It was constructed in 1821 as the final resting place for Samuel and Caroline (Orcutt) Coffin’s eldest son, William, who drowned in the Winniconic River after falling into Hilton's Gorge the year before. Since then, numerous Coffins have been laid to rest within its walls.

Current Conditions

As a foreseeable consequence of the gradual but steady reduction in staff over the years, the sparkling opulence that was once the hallmark of Coffinhurst has diminished greatly. Like an old clock whose mainspring has wound down, the once magnificent mansion is unable to function as it once did. A heavy pall of dust has accumulated on the lesser-used surfaces and cobwebs adorn the dark corners of the drafty rooms, while weeds sprout in the gardens as regular daily upkeep and maintenance goes wanting for lack of hands to the task.

Peeling wallpaper can be seen throughout the building, with many surfaces badly in need of paint. Cracked windowpanes and loose window latches cannot keep out the cold winter winds that rattle the doors and rustle the curtains. Outdated wiring, resulting in flickering lights and not-infrequent blackouts, can give the place an uncanny, menacing ambience at night. Many of the melancholy rooms have simply been abandoned as they were, locked tight with their haunting memories sealed up inside, as if waiting to be released from the suffocating dowager’s gloom that has taken hold of the place.

Coffinhurst


PRIVATE ESTATE


Coffinhurst Estate
Madbury, New Hampshire

Location
1266 Coffin Road,
Madbury, N.H.
Area
440 acres
Built
1812-14
Architect
Arlo Searles Flagg
Architectural Style
Gothic Châteauesque


Current Residents


Family:
the House

Josephine (Graves) Coffin

Evelyn (Blood) Coffin

Edwin Coffin
Alice (Howell) Coffin
Barnaby "Skip" Coffin II
Edwin "Chip" Coffin, Jr.

Norris Coffin

Grover Coffin

Maynard Coffin

Katherine Coffin

the Lodge

Dudley Coffin
Sarah (Leech) Coffin
Mary Coffin
Pamela Coffin

Staff:

Luther Dedham
[Butler]

Beatrice (Payne) Dedham
Penelope Dedham
[Kitchen/Housekeeping]

Chester Blackwood
[Groundskeeper]

Marie Lévesque
[Governess/Tutor]

The Household Staff


The domestic workforce at Coffinhurst is a mere skeleton of what it once was, currently consisting of only five people. The head of the staff is the butler, Luther Dedham, a tall, rawboned man of dignified appearance and demeanor, originally from the town of Colchester in England. His wife, Beatrice (Payne) Dedham, also born in England, is responsible for the kitchen and general housekeeping. She is assisted by their daughter, 22-year-old Penelope Dedham. They reside on the grounds in the “Servants’ Quarters,” a small stone cottage near the Carriage House.

The fourth member of the Coffinhurst staff is the groundskeeper, Chester Blackwood. A hulking giant of a man in his mid-forties, he is a hard-working, gentle soul, dedicated to the Coffin family and the Coffinhurst Estate. He is sometimes assisted by his teenaged son on weekends and after school, although the boy is not formally employed by the Coffin family. The Blackwood family lives in the “Gatehouse,” a small cottage adjacent to the iron gate at the entrance to the property, providing a small degree of security in the nighttime.

Finally, Marie Lévesque serves as governess to the young Coffin children. A Québécoise from Coaticook, she came to Madbury in 1951 to live with her uncle, Paul Arsenault, a foreman at the Coffin Lumber Mill. Before moving to Coffinhurst in 1959, she taught third grade at the Moharimet School. In addition to her duties as governess, Miss Lévesque also tutors the children in French. Her rooms are on the third floor, near the entrance to the attics.

Coffinhurst Estate
1266 Coffin Road
Madbury, N.H. 03823
(603) 742-4099

Image Credits:
Haasmaster, CC BY-SA 4.0 < https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0 >, via Wikimedia Commons.

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