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 Newburyport; A Contemporary Perspective

A Case in Point?

By Jim Roy - Newburyport Liberator

September 26, 2008

Another downtown vacancy recently caught our eye, the art studio of Jon-William Brown down at 49 Water Street, which is sandwiched between Bennett & Co. properties, and with Starboard Galley on one side and (eventually) the Custom House Museum on the other.  Jon, as many art lovers know, has been doing Newburyport-based prints for several years now, many featuring maritime motifs and renditions of our superb period architecture. The new annex of the Essex Street Inn, for example, is almost totally decorated with his work.

His shop, The Spirit of Newburyport, was located in a concrete block annex that backs onto Merrimack Street. (You may recall that he had one of those dreaded, despicable, and now outlawed A-Frames out on the sidewalk.) Old-time hippies will remember this as the former home of Port Potters. Jon lived in the 3-story clapboard building that is attached to the shop, and which faces the river. He was flooded out of there in 2007 when the Merrimac went on one of its famous rampages, but he regrouped and moved back in..

 We noticed, walking old Willie down by the water a few weeks ago, that the whole complex was empty. No Jon-William Brown, no tenants, no nothing. The older building has gone seedy on the outside these last few years: paint peeling, windows rough and ready, missing clapboards, exposed framing, a general air of dilapidation. Just the kind of dump, most people might imagine, that should be bulldozed. Being naturally curious, we decided to track Jon down to see what was what. And a tale of woe it turned out to be!

 49 Water is a Karp property, formerly owned and managed by the Legasses. While attention seems focused right now on Karp’s Waterfront West, the “run silent, run deep” aspect of New England Development’s interest in Newburyport also extends to Waterfront East. If Bennett & Co. sell out to NED (we believe their property is currently for sale), Steve Karp will be the major property owner “here” as well as “there.” Is there anything along the waterfront that he won’t own?

 Brown originally had no idea about the provenance or history of 49 Water, but physical characteristics about the clearly older part of the complex intrigued him. The big open space on the top floor (25’ x 60’), the antique hand-hewn beams, the wide floor boards, the mix and match aspect of its construction. He decided to do some digging and, as is so often the case, he ended up knowing more about this place than anybody else in town.

 In future issues we will print some of the fascinating material that John turned up, but for the moment, digest this: the building was built in 1729 out of (essentially) the flotsam left over from ship building, viz. assorted timber pieces, masts, shorts, irregulars, and so on. The top floor was a sail loft for both origination and repairs between at least 1850 and 1884; the second floor, a counting office where manifests, account books, billing invoices, and the usual flow of paperwork associated with any business was churned out, digested, and filed. The enterprise in question here was both ship building and merchant affairs in general, and the families involved were the very pillars of Newburyport society, most notably the Curriers and Cushings.

The owner of 49 Water was John Cushing, a notable trader, whose half-brother, Caleb, was not only the Clipper City’s first mayor, but also an America ambassador to China. By the way, he was the nation’s Attorney General for a while as well. A much-beloved old photograph of the Newburyport waterfront shows the last square rigger constructed in our city (named, what else, the Mary L. Cushing), tied up at Cushing’s Wharf, and 49 Water is there, in the right-hand corner. As we hope most people know, the stately brick town house at 98 High Street, headquarters to our venerable historical society, was built by the Cushings in 1808.

 Jon Brown thought he saw gold in all of this, a tremendous resource for the city that might, if tied together with the Custom House Museum, the Newburyport Preservation Trust, and the Cushing House, be parlayed into a tremendously attractive tourist package and attraction. “I was blown out of the water by the possibilities,” he told NLib in an extensive interview. “I would often sit up there in the loft, looking out the window, and I’d say boy, the sail makers, the craftsmen that were here before me, they were important people in the whole chain of events that led to making Newburyport the important city it was. And yet, they are largely unknown to us today, even though what they did down on the waterfront was the origin of the obvious wealth we see on High Street. I was pretty amazed that no one around here had really made that connection, and yet here I was, an amateur historian, and I was putting the dots together.

“You look at the career of Caleb Cushing, and he was one of the truly important figures in American history. His rise to prominence was a direct result of what was going on at 49 Water Street. The merchant trade established here by his family, right there at Cushing Wharf, allowed them to flourish, allowed them to establish their careers well beyond the boundaries of Newburyport. Caleb was an attorney general of the United States, an ambassador to China when we were opening trade in the Far East, and held lots of other important positions as well. They built their mansion on High Street and walked to work to Cushing’s Wharf. It’s a direct connection to where I lived, and people should be aware of it.” But then, as fate would have it, Jon-William Brown’s life began to unravel.

 We won’t go into the gruesome medical details, but Mr. Brown came down sick. Beginning in October of 2007 and continuing on for some 7 months of excruciating uncertainly, he wondered if his own “ship” might be leaving port. Luckily for him (and those of us who admire his work) he came out alive and well, but his earnings took a tremendous hit and he fell behind on his rent … seriously behind. In the old days, we think, some accommodation might have been reached that might have allowed him to stay. Indeed, offers of a settlement were made and exchanged at several junctures during his tumultuous stewardship of 49 Water, but the end result – for whatever reason – is a now empty building. Jon Brown is out, he still owes money to New England Development, and in all probability his vision for that spot of land is now extinct.

 Too much can be read into the background of all this, but one conclusion seems eminently possible. The notion of a Historic Marine District, the centerpiece of Brown’s vision, is not something that a New England Development (or any commercial entrepreneur interested in the bottom line) might see as beneficial to its own business plan. Despite all the question marks and uncertainties that were presented by Karp back in March when he presented his exceedingly vague version of Waterfront West-To-Be, we feel he knows exactly what he wants. Ditto for Waterfront East. We don’t think New England Development was ever afraid of Jon Brown or his waterfront scheme, we just feel it was more convenient for them that Brown move elsewhere, and take his ideas along with him. Plus the fact, of course, that he owed them a lot of money and no one likes being in that position vis-à-vis tenants.

 Our feelings on this issue are plain. The old sail loft is one of the few manifestations left on the waterfront of Newburyport’s 19thc glory days. True, we have the end results of that era all over town in our magnificent ship captain’s houses, but as to the actual locus of what made these fortunes – the nuts and bolts of commercial life on the Merrimac – we haven’t a thing to point to. 49 Water, in Brown’s words, “may not be the prettiest building, it may not be a mansion on High Street, but in many important ways it was the foundation that was used to create the substantial wealth that came later.” The proverbial horse that pulled the cart.

We feel, with Jon-William Brown, that 49 Water is not some derelict that should be knocked aside in the name of progress. It is not a building that should be destroyed so that some boutique or condo might take its place. This is a genuine part of our history. No individual, and no company, should be allowed to remove it without a howl of public protest.

You can see the 19thc photo of 49 Water on p.46 of Maritime History of the Merrimac: Shipbuilding, by  R. K. Cheney (Newburyport Press, 1964) at the public library, or on Jon’s website at Also check out Mass. Historical Commission’s very interesting Reconnaissance Survey  Town Reports (reference to 49 Water -- misidentified as # 51 – is on p. 14). Better yet, take a walk down to Water Street, check out the site yourself, and let us know what you think. And by the way, keep a lookout for Jon-William Brown’s artwork, which should re-emerge sometime, somewhere, in October.

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