Newly Restored Landmark Schoolhouse Gets a New Lease on Life

From Corporate Retreats to Weddings, Cambridge Hall in Olde Towne Portsmouth is an Events Venue for All Seasons

by Tanya Keller

On the corner of London and Washington streets in historic Olde Towne Portsmouth, stands a distinguished, Italianate-style building dating to 1891. During its first 100 years, it was home to St. Paul’s School for Boys, and later, St. Paul’s Catholic High School. In 1959, it became the first integrated school in Portsmouth, and in 1964 the structure accommodated Portsmouth Catholic High School students until its closure in 1991. Now, after changing hands several times, this beautifully restored historic building serves as a backdrop for a variety of events including weddings, parties, performances, corporate retreats, team building experiences and small business conferences.

The road to restoration was a long one, and there were a few speed bumps along the way. In 2005, Ernest Holloway, a builder specializing in restoration work, purchased the building from the City of Portsmouth with the goal of reviving its original grandeur and repurposing the structure to accommodate office space. Holloway died in 2019, yet under his watch the transformation process began, including restoration and repair of the original maple flooring and unusual beadboard ceilings.

But now the former schoolhouse needed a new owner, someone who might have the same passion for restoration as Holloway. Finally, Ed O’Brien, a wealth manager and estate planner, was approached by the Holloway family to consider purchasing the building with an eye toward restoring and repurposing the interior to create an inviting and flexible space that could accommodate a variety of smaller-scale events.

Photos Courtesy of Cambridge Hall

Photos Courtesy of Cambridge Hall

In 2020, O’Brien closed on the property. To ensure that the building maintained its historical integrity, he engaged the services of historic preservation expert, Kerry Shackleford of Museum Resources. Museum Resources spent the next 10 months hand-building 45 large, wooden windows from scratch, complete with pulley systems, installing them in what is now officially known as Cambridge Hall.

This renovated venue can accommodate up to 150 people. Clients can rent the entire space, a single floor, or one of their mini-halls. “We want this to be the premier small event venue in the Hampton Roads region,” says O’Brien.

Tony Goodwin, a Portsmouth business development professional and real estate developer currently serves as Cambridge Hall’s facilities manager. He explains that the City of Portsmouth proudly recognizes this property as a significant structure contributing to the historic district. “Since we opened in 2022, we’ve hosted weddings, birthday parties, community, corporate and neighborhood events, bar mitzvahs, music recitals and private music performances,” Goodwin relates. I feel like this will evolve into being a great visual and performing arts space as well.”

Portsmouth native Nicole Park is preparing to host her daughter’s birthday party at Cambridge Hall. “My family and I are from Portsmouth, and I was really hoping to find a venue in our city. Once housing a Catholic school, Cambridge Hall is the site where my mother-in-law was educated, so the history means something to our family. The venue is both beautiful and affordable. Tony Goodwin, the facilities manager has been extremely accommodating to our needs, meeting us there for as many walk-throughs as we’ve needed. We’re very excited about having our party there.”

Photos Courtesy of Cambridge Hall

Photos Courtesy of Cambridge Hall

Abby Stewart Cale chose Cambridge Hall for her wedding and was enthralled by the building’s past. “We both love visiting historic places where the voices and stories of the past still reverberate, and Cambridge Hall offers just that.” she related. “It’s been so beautifully renovated and designed that you hardly need to decorate. And Cambridge Hall’s event team was beyond accommodating and helpful, going out of their way to ensure we had everything we needed. The layout of the building is unique, allowing couples to design a wedding flow that suits their vision. It was a wonderful experience, from our first site visit to the moment we closed the doors behind us on the best day ever.”

Some bonuses? Cambridge Hall is open year-round, and it has available outdoor space, a full-service receiving kitchen with stainless-steel prep areas, and ample off-street parking. The venue even sports a grand piano. Unlike other venues which have a short list of preferred caterers, Cambridge Hall allows groups to bring in their own caterer and secure their own temporary banquet license for their special occasion. All event-related activities are coordinated with onsite staff.

The restoration of Cambridge Hall is a boon to historic Olde Towne. The gracious, easily accessible venue offers a flexible, and affordable space for business gatherings and private events.

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