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In 1750, Englishman John Stavers opened a public house, inn, and tavern, on Queen Street (now State Street) under the sign of the Earl of Halifax. Taverns such as Stavers’ provided lodgings for travelers but were equally important as gathering places for the local citizenry, providing newspapers, local news and gossip, and a meeting place for political discussions and closing business deals.
John Stavers was a member of St. John’s Masonic Lodge and host to their meetings. The Lodge was so important to him that it determined much of the way his new hotel was constructed when he moved to the corner of Court and Atkinson Streets in 1766.
The tavern also provided a base for the first stagecoach service from Portsmouth to Boston, a joint enterprise of John Stavers and his brother, Bartholomew, who was the regular driver.
After John Stavers died in a carriage accident in 1797 his heirs briefly continued to operate the tavern. Later the building became a multi-family house.
When the dispute began between Great Britain and her American colonies, Stavers' tavern could not avoid the political controversies of the coming Revolution. John Stavers loyalties are unclear but were much doubted at the time. On January 29, 1777, Mark Noble, backed by a mob, tried to chop down the tavern sign. Stavers sent out his enslaved African, James, to stop them James hit Noble in the head with an ax, knocking him unconscious. Noble recovered but within two days the Portsmouth Committee of Safety arrested Stavers and along with fifteen others "notoriously disaffected to the American cause" turned him over to the New Hampshire Committee of Safety at Exeter. When the Committee released the others, they kept Stavers, believing his life was in danger. The next day, Mark Noble, petitioned for Stavers’ release and on February 5th, Stavers was among twelve who were released after posting bond of L500 each, on condition of a year's good behavior.
Stavers remained under a cloud of suspicion and subsequently re-named his tavern the William Pitt Tavern in honor of the British statesman who advocated the American cause in Parliament. Newspapers, thereafter, referred to it simply as Stavers Tavern. Stavers recovered the public's good opinion and in 1789, the Masons founded the Grand Lodge of New Hampshire Masons – one of the oldest Masonic Lodges in America at Pitt Tavern. Subsequent visitors reputedly included the Marquis de Lafayette in 1782, John Hancock, William Whipple, General Henry Knox and George Washington – a Mason himself -- in 1789.
Stavers' new tavern was designed so that the entire third floor could serve as a lodge room, separate from the comings and goings in the rest of the tavern. This made Stavers' hotel exceptionally tall at a time when there were few three-story buildings in Portsmouth.
The needs of the Lodge determined other unique architectural features of the tavern: the stairway was placed at the rear of the building and the chimneys were placed on the ends of the building to accommodate the need for the large, open lodge room. The room was soundproofed with grain chaff in the walls and fine grey beach sand under the floor.
With assistance from the Grand Lodge of New Hampshire Masons and the National Endowment for the Humanities, Strawbery Banke restored the Tavern to its original condition in the 1980s, with a small museum operated by the Masons on the second floor.