One of the important concepts that have emerged recently amongst Newburyport historians and preservationists is the linkage between the Port and the rest of the City.
At one time, there were strict delineations. The Cushing House had to do with City history, the Custom House had to do with the sea and the Preservation Trust (or before that, the Historical Society) took care of the architecture, gardens and the houses. Even Historic New England concentrated on historic farms and inns. But as more and more is learned, there is a definite unity. The merchants and ship captains managed the waterfront and in response to the wealth gained from exporting and importing, they embraced the fashions of the day. Many homes unique features were in direct response to what Captains had seen around the world adding an international flavor to our town.
Even the average folk focused on what was experienced at the water’s edge. The ‘Detroit’ of Newburyport was shipbuilding. It generated jobs and these diverse positions are found all over the city. Many jobs were generated from the different wharves on the water – many made enough and when they built homes perhaps not as nice as the merchants but nice enough for respectable living. Many became landlords and lived off rents.
Look anywhere in Newburyport, and you will find homes scattered about manned by coopers (barrel makers), distillers, wharf hands; captains, merchants and pilots. There were custom officials and the bankers and insurance companies that supported the docks.
Therefore, anything that goes on at the waterfront is much a part of our town as a house on High Street. The ‘Port’ kept the prosperity of the city and when it was closed in the early twentieth century, Newburyport began to lose its way. The only way to understand High Street and the historic district is to tie every activity to the port. Without it, we have architecture but no history, we have the sea but no uniqueness.
There is a new spirit of cooperation between the Custom House, the Historical Society, the Library archives and the Preservation Trust – each needs the other to make sense out of our historic seaport. Each needs the other to make sense of the architecture so it can be preserved ‘in context’. The water’s edge is as crucial as the mansions on High Street. Not understanding the wharves and our sea heritage can give our historic neighborhoods a hollow ring.
It is all one and with all with a single message – Newburyport: America’s First Historic Seaport.