Newburyport; A Contemporary Perspective
Spirit of Newburport Gallery
'1729 Counting House'
The building that originally housed the 'Spirit of Newburyport' Gallery was built in 1729 out of recycled ship mast, when Newburyport was still part of the ‘Newberry Plantation’. The three and a half story frame still exhibits the exposed hand hewed beams, complete with original hardware and sail riggings. It is one of the very few remaining original testaments to Newburyport’s rich merchant and shipbuilding history. In the late 18th and early 19th century the second floor was used as counting offices for recording imports and sea logs. The third floor was designed for a sail loft with its 25’x 60’ open space. Some of its wide wooden planked floors are just shy of the 24 inches required for ‘Captain’ Houses.
The pen & ink drawing on the left depicts this site (Currently the Newburyport Harbor Marina) as it appeared in 1883 and what was then known as ‘Cushing’s Wharf’. It's owner, John Cushing Jr, was a prominent Newburyport merchant and brother to one of Newburyport’s most celebrated citizens, Caleb Cushing. The Cushing House Museum is located on the corner of Fruit and High Street. Referred to as the ‘Caleb Cushing House’, it currently exhibits the family's artifacts. It is also the home of the Historical Society of Old Newbury. Caleb Cushing was Newburyport's very first mayor and went on to be United States Attorney General and United States Ambassador to China. The last merchant ship built on the Merrimac was docked right here at her home pier and named after John Cushing’s wife, the ‘Mary L. Cushing’ also depicted in picture above in 1883. Mary Cushing's maiden name was Mary Brown, relative of Laurence Brown, Captain of the Mary L. Cushing. The back of this ‘counting house’ which currently houses the 'Spirit of Newburyport Gallery' is also shown in the picture with a ‘Sail Loft’ sign clearly imprinted on its side. Directories indicate that Charles Currier owned a sail loft at Cushing's Wharf between 1850 and 1868. After his death, his son continued to make sails in the building until 1884.
The picture was drawn from a famous original photograph in the ‘George Noyes collection’ used in Robert K. Cheney’s book, ‘History of the Merrimac; Shipbuilding’. Even though the privateer and shipbuilding ways of the Merrimac River were to soon change, the Cushing family continued to own the wharf until at least 1924. An 1888 Sanborn map indicates that the building was used as a molasses warehouse. By 1914 the building was being used to store coal and wood as part of J.H. Balch’s coal yard.
The next picture to the left depicts the property as it appeared in the late 1950's when it housed ‘Port Potter's’ and ‘Narrow's Gun’ shop. A retail concrete attachment was added to the main building in 1950. During Newburyport's revival and restoration period of the 1970's, the house underwent extensive interior refurbishing, but the core structure of the recycled ship mast beams and wide planked floors remained in tact. An antique shop inhabited the building in the late 1990’s and in 2006, artist/photographer John W. Brown opened the ‘Spirit of Newburyport’ Gallery and Gift Shop.
John has moved on to other ventures with his work, and although a bit crooked and worn, its wooden planked floors bearing the marks of almost three hundred years of craft and industry, this building continues to stand as a testament to self and American made values while honoring not only the tradition of local economic contributions to Newburyport, but to those that built America.
Copyright 2019. Spirit of Newburyport. All rights reserved.