Marble Halls, Brass Rails, and Lightbulbs: The Politics of Real Estate at the N.H. State House

Feb 2, 2017

House Speaker Shawn Jasper in the House conference room
Credit NHPR/Hannah McCarthy

At the New Hampshire State House, lawmakers don’t limit debate to bills and the budget. Control of square footage in the building itself can be as controversial as any partisan policy. I took a tour with a man who has a set of keys to the shared rental.

Speaker of the House Shawn Jasper has served eleven terms in the Legislature. He knows the State House better than many – but that doesn’t make it any easier to give a tour.

Approaching the door to a Senate-controlled room, Jasper tried the doorknob:

"Does the Senate have it locked? The Senate has it locked," he shrugged, "Ummm. But, yes, of course…"

Political capital comes in a lot of shapes and sizes at the State House – titles, committee assignments, tenure – but real estate holdings in the building itself may be the ultimate status symbol. It’s almost like a short term rental with two roommates – the House and the Senate – who are at odds over who gets the bigger bedroom.

Over the years, rooms have been traded, coveted and withheld – and sometimes, Jasper explains, someone makes a bad deal. As we walk down the third floor hallway, the Speaker gestures to the Senate offices. Years ago, these rooms belonged to the House, which needed the space for its 400 members to do business.

"And then one of the speakers traded away, for what? I have no idea, two rooms." Jasper says, "So that the Senate, with 24 members, now actually has more square footage on this floor than the House does."

Pure floor space is one thing, but then there are the trophy rooms – particularly stately, spacious, or convenient. Like Room 100, for instance, on the first floor. It’s a prime piece of real estate in the State House.  Jasper offers to sneak me in.

"Ah, it’s typically locked. Oop!  They forgot to lock it," Jasper whispers, "I don’t think the Senate President will be upset."

The space has tall ceilings, windows into the courtyard, and shelving from its days as the state library.  The House used to control it, but the Senate has it now. As he shows me around the room, it’s clear that Jasper would’ve gone in a different direction with the décor.

"So, to have lost this space, to, you know, somebody like me," Jasper says, "I would’ve been spending a lot of time seeing what we could find for portraits for the walls, and..."

Jasper, a resident historian of sorts in the State House, has put a lot of effort into preserving and enhancing the space he does control. When he became Speaker in 2014, he immediately got to work on a bit of a restoration.

"It’s a working museum, and we weren’t taking care of it that way," Jasper explains, "People weren’t polishing the brass on the rails, on the doorknobs, and things were just being let to go. And both Terry and I share that passion for the building."

Terry is Terry Pfaff, Jasper’s Chief of Staff and fellow State House curator. In the House conference room, the Speaker notes a colonial-style cabinet and heavy, elegant conference table. There are paintings, and a flintlock on the wall, rescued from Daniel Webster’s homestead. In this government version of weekend antiquing, Pfaff and Jasper have been making their State House quarters look, well, stately.

"He’s great at buying things, like the table here," Jasper says, "It was used, we didn’t pay much money for it, but he’s great at finding things. He’s always looking at the government auction sites, gets a lot of stuff from there."

The Speaker may eye the Senate conference room with some longing, but he doesn’t dwell on it. He’s got more basic problems to deal with – just like any other homeowner.

"I’d come into the State House and go, ‘Terry, there are six bulbs out today. This is the State House. What are we doing with all these bulbs out?’ So it got to be a joke," Jasper chuckles, "So one day I came in and said, 'That’s it, I’ve had it, just call down, get me a case of light bulbs and a step ladder, I’m changing those bulbs myself.' He got right on the phone and said, 'The Speaker’s really mad. Get those bulbs changed now.' "  

Fresh light bulbs. No matter your politics, that’s something we can all agree on.