N.H. woman preserves house’s political history
Arnie Arnesen stays true to house’s past as a place for discourse, debate
CONCORD, N.H. — New Hampshire’s list of political tourist stops has grown a little longer, thanks to a Democratic activist with a big personality, a bigger house, and an account on Airbnb.
For a little more than $80 a night, visitors can sleep in a converted parlor in downtown Concord that was once a speaking venue coveted by presidential candidates. Renting the room to travelers from around the world is just one way homeowner Arnie Arnesen is preserving the heritage of a Queen Anne Victorian known for its stained glass windows and vibrant political scene.
“Most people will tell you they met Bill Clinton here; a lot of people met Jimmy Carter here. This is the place where Al Gore spoke,” Arnesen said. “Buddy Roemer spoke here. Bernie Sanders is coming Saturday. This house is open and available to presidents in waiting.”
It’s been about five years since Arnesen bought the home, and about three since she listed it on Airbnb, a website matching travelers to homeowners willing to rent a room. Arnesen is a liberal Democrat who ran for governor and Congress in the 1990s and is now known for her intellectually eclectic radio talk shows. She’s become a popular host on Airbnb, earning top-notch ratings and rave reviews from guests who say they love the stories she tells about New Hampshire politics. They’re also in awe of the house.
One recent guest described it as “magical, whimsical, and beautiful.” Arnesen, that same guest said, is “engaging and hilarious.” A woman who stayed there last year declared her “allegiance” to Arnesen, saying “the whole experience never fails to be insightful and entertaining.”
Built in 1890, the house sits a few blocks from the New Hampshire State House and across the street from an elementary school named for Christa McAuliffe, the local teacher killed in the 1986 explosion of the space shuttle Challenger. For many years, the home belonged to Martin and Caroline Gross, a bipartisan political power couple. Martin, a Democrat, served as the city’s mayor; Caroline, a Republican, was the first female majority leader in the New Hampshire House. As a result, their home was a favorite stop for Republican and Democratic candidates alike.
There’s a framed certificate in a second-floor bedroom proclaiming that Jimmy Carter slept there once. Bill Clinton rested his elbow on the ornate fireplace mantel downstairs. The windowless water closet in the back hallway is known as the “Al Gore bathroom” because it’s where the Secret Service planned to stash the vice president if there was a threat during his visit.
“This was the safe room,” Arnesen said, pulling open the door to reveal a space barely big enough for a toilet. “We knew we could never get rid of this bathroom. It has too much history.”
When the house was put up for sale in 2009, Arnesen made an offer. The asking price was outside her budget, but she promised that, as the new owner, she would preserve the home’s political life.
“After apologizing for such a low bid, I said that not only would I respect the historical integrity of the house, but that the house would always be open,” she said. It worked.
The last five years have been hard for Arnesen. She cared for an elderly aunt who she says died in her arms. Her husband, Marty Capodice, died of cancer in fall 2013. But the house ensures that Arnesen is rarely alone.
She lives in the renovated attic, an airy, whitewashed space that she designed herself and furnished with salvaged furniture. A handful of law students rent bedrooms on the second floor. Two union organizers use part of an office one day a week. A revolving cast of activists crash on Murphy beds in what Arnesen calls the “volunteer room.”
“When they were organizing for freedom to marry, they slept in this room,” Arnesen said. “When they did an exchange program with people in the justice system in Russia, two Russian domestic violence workers slept in this room.”
Although she’s a Democrat, Arnesen would like to host Republicans, too.
“I want them to be in a tough setting,” she said. “I don’t mean that we won’t respect them, but it won’t be a love-in. It will be the kind of questions you don’t always hear in your bubble. . . . This would be the best place for them to meet independent voters.”
This weekend’s visit from Sanders, the US senator from Vermont, will help kick off the house’s 2016 presidential primary season, but Arnesen may have some furniture to move first. There won’t be any Airbnb guests staying over, but there’s still a bed in front of the fireplace where candidates have traditionally spoken.
“I’ve to figure out where Bernie’s going to go,” she said. “Now that we’ve made that into the bedroom, it’s going to be an interesting challenge.”