The Georgian mansion which houses the Newburyport Public Library was built in 1771 by Captain Patrick Tracy and was intended for his son, Nathaniel Tracy. To accomplish this, an existing home on the site which was occupied by Rev John Lowell, pastor of the First Congregational Church of Newburyport was moved to 10 Temple Street. The mansion was also accompanied by land all the way to Green Street and included gardens, fruit orchards, barns, stables and various outbuildings.
After moving in, Nathaniel Tracy ended up with a fleet of 110 ships and was quite wealthy. He further enhanced his standing by marrying the daughter of Colonel Jeremiah Lee, one of Marblehead’s most prominent citizens. But he was also an ardent patriot and one of the major financiers of the American Revolution. With great largess, he lived in magnificent style, and entertained Thomas Jefferson and Benedict Arnold among others and yes, George Washington slept here on October 30, 1789. A portrait of Nathaniel Tracy hangs in the library’s Directors’ Room. He also helped found St. John’s Masonic Temple presently located on Green Street.
His fortune in addition to a sea merchant was enhanced by privateering during the Revolutionary War and during the “Undeclared War with France”.
The British at first ignored the many ships that Tracy alone had dedicated to Privateering and much wealth was brought in. Soon though, the English supply lines became endangered and it was primarily due to the weakened logistics that caused the British to abandon Boston after Washington blockaded and then hauled cannon to Dorchester.
After smarting from such an oversight, the British effectively blockaded Newburyport’s harbor for the rest of the war and in a very short time, Tracy’s privateer ships dwindled down to a handful causing him great financial hardship.
His fortune shattered, Tracy sold his home at 94 State Street to Jonathan Jackson his brother in law and business partner in the importing firm of Jackson, Tracy and Tracy. Jonathan became very involved in politics and held several positions from state representative to state senator. He in turn due to his connections entertained people of the likes of John Hancock and George Washington.
Between l79l and 1796 the Tracy house was occupied by the eccentric Lord Timothy Dexter. Soon thereafter, the house was purchased by merchant James Prince who served as an early selectman and collector of the port. Due to financial difficulties Prince was forced to rent the house in 1807. It was at a time used as a bowling saloon. The tenant, James Coburn, opened the house to travelers as the Sun Hotel and continued to operate his business here until I 8 I 0. By I 824 James Prince was again living in the Tracy House and during his tenure the General Marquis de Lafayette was escorted to the house by parade where he dined with invited guests before spending the night.
In 1863 the Tracy House was purchased for use as a public library at a cost of $6,000, raised primarily through public donations. Alterations to the building were completed in 1865, according to the designs of noted Boston architect, Arthur Gilman, who was a native of Newburyport. Albert Currier, former mayor of the City, served as the construction
superintendent. The cost of the alterations was approximately $10,000 and neither Gilman nor Currier charged any fees. The building was deeded to the city in September 1865 and opened to the public January l, 1866. As part of the renovations, the brick dwelling was covered with mastic,
In the older section of the newly renovated library, some of the furniture has a story to tell. There is a mahogany side table with claw and ball feet, probably of English origin which was seized from a French prize ship captured during the undeclared war with France. The mahogany block desk, circa 1780 and most likely of Rhode Island origin, belonged to wealthy Newburyport merchant Moses Brown.
In 1870 William C. Todd established a free reading room in connection with the Public Library. Todd had served as the
principal of the Female High School of Newburyport (The first in the Nation). Todd recognized the free reading room, containing the leading newspapers and magazines of the day, as necessary for free schools and free libraries. In 1881, Michael H. Simpson of Boston and others contributed S22,000 for the construction of a reading room. The Simpson Annex was completed and dedicated on April 28, 1882. The mastic covering on the exterior of the building was removed at this time and a new veneer of pressed brick was applied. The plans for the addition were drawn by Rufus Sargent of Newburyport and the contractor was Albert Currier (former Mayor).
Before the recent renovation and expansion of the library, ship models hung overhead surrounded by wrought iron balustrades on the upper floors. Large oil paintings on the walls enhanced the feeling of great history in what was at core, the Tracy Mansion built by Privateering!
Annual Report, City of Newburyport, 1881.
"City of Newburyport Public Library: Dedicatory Exercises of the Simpson Annex
1882". Newburyport, William H. Huse & Co., Printers, 1882′
Currier, John J . History of Newburyport, Massachusetts, 1764-1906 vols.
Irving, Ron. Unpublished research on State Street.
Massachusetts Historical Commission Resources Inventory
Stirgwolt, Mary Jane. "Historical Buildings Survey and Inventory, Newburyport,
Prepared for the Massachusetts Historical Commission1980.
B. Labaree, “Patriots and Partisans”, Cambridge, 1962
A. Hale, Old Newburyport Houses, Boston, 1912
J. M Howells, Architectural Heritage of the Merrimack, New York, 1941.