A chip off ye olde block

On the New England coast, Greg Lenthen finds an intact neighbourhood populated by a vanished community.

We surprise Mrs Shapiro in her kitchen, late on a grey afternoon in 1919. She's standing at an old coal stove cooking blintzes - stuffed pancakes. They smell delicious, and we ask if we can try them.

Mrs Shapiro wipes her thin hands on a long apron, pushes a strand of wavy dark hair away from her forehead and gives us an apologetic smile. "Sorry, but they're for my family," she says in an accent plausibly Russian.

"Mrs Shapiro" is an actor, playing a part at a remarkable outdoor museum in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, a small city on America's New England coast.

Strawbery Banke Museum takes its name from the wild strawberries that once grew beside a nearby river. The river has long since been filled in, and the people of the riverside community of Puddle Dock have moved on, but the museum preserves a generous slice of the neighbourhood where they lived and worked from the mid-17th century to the mid-20th.

Houses, shops and outbuildings have been restored - some to their original incarnation, others as they were later in their lives. For example, a 1720 house recaptures its life as a World War II family-run grocery store, now stocked with a truly extraordinary array of canned and packaged goods from the war era. Wherever did they find all those packets of Persil laundry powder?

There doesn't seem to be anyone to ask except for an old woman sitting outside the shop. But the woman will say only that she's "Mrs Tucker, a neighbourhood lady", and she's "just minding the store". Seems impossible to tempt these actors to step out of character.

Ironically, the Puddle Dock neighbourhood survived only because of a plan to tear it down. In the 1950s, the entire area was bought up by the US government as part of a national slum-clearance program. But the people of Portsmouth persuaded Washington that you could clear a slum by restoring it instead of demolishing it.

A public trust was established to preserve almost 40 buildings where they stood, along with the stories of seaport life over the centuries and of the mostly immigrant families who lived in Puddle Dock. Stories such as that of the Shapiros - the real Shapiros, Abraham and Sarah - Russian Jewish migrants who lived in their late-18th-century weatherboard house for two decades, from 1909.

Today, the house looks just as it would have when Abraham, Sarah and their American-born daughter, Mollie, called it home, restored with an accurate eye for detail right down to the sheet music on the piano.

Outside, we follow our noses to a nearby house where a man - who might have just stepped out of the 18th century - is cooking over the hot embers of an open-hearth fire where an apple pie in a Dutch oven sits beside a loin of pork rubbed with salt and herbs. We ask who it's for, fully expecting him to stay in character and say it's for soldiers of one of the New Hampshire regiments in the War of Independence (which, by the way, Americans call the Revolutionary War).

But no, he says it's for a dinner for Strawbery Banke's volunteers who - in character or out - are the welcoming faces of the museum, from Sherburne House built in 1695 to the Penhallow Garage from 1920, and all the 18th- and 19th-century buildings and gardens in between.

While it's devoted to preserving the past, Strawbery Banke lives very much in the digital present: two other visitors stop us to share their excitement at discovering that they can use their iPhone to guide them around the four-hectare site simply by calling a local number and then following the prompts.

There were no smartphones on a similar excursion in the 1980s when we visited Dallas, Texas, and found ourselves looking in vain for some tangible remnant of the city's pioneering past. Our host smiled, and took us to what was then called Old City Park, and is now the Dallas Heritage Village.

On the one hand, the Texans had wanted to keep their historic buildings. On the other, they couldn't allow old houses and shops to block the city's high-rise, glass-walled progress. So, the Dallas folk simply rounded up the city's (mainly timber) historic buildings and corralled them in the park. Heritage as a one-stop shop.

As we walked around the park in Dallas, women in period dress stood in doorways and smiled and drawled, "Hi, y'all, where ya from?"

Everyone was just as nice as pie, but still we felt something was missing.

Transplanted houses are a compromise that never convincingly takes root. Better to preserve them where they've always stood - as they do at Strawbery Banke.


Where Strawbery Banke Museum, 14 Hancock Street, Portsmouth, New Hampshire. See strawberybanke.org.

Getting there Portsmouth, NH, is a little more than an hour's drive north of Boston on Interstate 95.

While there Portsmouth, which calls itself the United States's third-oldest city, is small (population about 21,000), eminently walkable and rich in both history and seafood. See portsmouthnh.com.