If anyone has left a lasting mark in Newburyport architecture, it is Mr. Sargent.
His architectural masterpiece on Pleasant Street is one of the most photographed in New England. Rockport has its Motif No. One, we have the First Religious Society building. Considering what he was involved with, his workmanship is the most identifiable throughout the city.
Though very prominent as an architect in his day, he was mostly forgotten until the last two decades of the twentieth century. A cataloguing of his work is beginning to be accumulated in prominent circles and enthusiasts are beginning to understand his remarkable influence on New England during the Victorian Era.
Newburyport wouldn’t be Newburyport without his contributions.
Born in Amesbury in 1812, Rufus originally started out as a carpenter, but later advanced himself into the fields of architecture and engineering. Both fields would serve him well, as he specialized mostly in commercial and public buildings. Any townie would be proud of him since he was the seventh generation descended from original settler William Sargent.
Newburyport after recovering from the War of 1812 and the economic depression that occurred afterward, found itself in a building boom before, during and after the Civil War. Mr. Sargent was able to capitalize this time and design some of our more prominent structures.
In 1871, he designed the gorgeous structure that we know of today as the Institution for Savings Bank. In 1872, he designed the Kelley School that stands so prominently on High Street at the top of Market. Later, he also designed the Newburyport Five Cents Savings Bank building on State. This later became the O’Brien Building as the bank moved across the street to a new location. This structure stands in contrast to the Federal architectural styles of the downtown and is a fine example of High Victorian Gothic design.
He also followed his first church building by later designing St. Anna’s Chapel at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church which as a congregation is working hard to restore this beautiful masterpiece.
His prowess allowed him to be chosen for many projects outside of his adopted city. He also did work in Peabody, Methuen, North Andover and Salem, Massachusetts as well as in Exeter, New Hampshire. He did the Merrill Block in Exeter. He designed the Peabody Library’s Eben Dale Sutton reading rooms and the Peabody Town Hall, both of which are now National Registered Historic Places. Surprisingly, his work went as far as the Sherman Conant house in Palatka,Florida.
Rufus Sargent was in residence at 8 Harris Street in 1884. You can gaze on his office and home by turning off of High Street onto Park Street. The house is directly across from the end of Park. Though Rufus Sargent had an office and also lived here, it is not confirmed that he actually built the house which was constructed in 1880. There is some debate that he more than likely took an existing building modified it into the High Victorian Italianate style popular in his day. He did leave an indelible mark on the look and architectural experts have detected his preference toward Romano-Tuscan modes of the Renaissance Revival with heavy lintels over the long villa-style windows.
He passed away in 1886. Even today, more of his designs are being discovered across New England. The Victorian Age in architecture was the greatest era of construction the world has ever known. Just recently, a beautiful home in Exeter was found to have been designed by Rufus Sargent and it turned out to be one of the largest homes ever constructed in Exeter in the 19th century. Rufus dabbled into several designs and this one was French Second Empire and truly reflects the graciousness of a bygone era. This house was just recently restored and is absolutely opulent in its interior.
Newburyport should be proud of our star-designer and seek every way possible to maintain and restore his workmanship in the city.
What is now Grand Gables Inn in Palatka Florida is the work of Rufus Sargent Circa 1884. It is a magnificent structure and is a bed breakfast.