There was at one time, nothing that was impressive about Newburyport’s famous ‘The Ridge’. Most of it was a mix of pasture and forested land that rose up from High Street. To the far western part of the hill were two simple ‘colonial’ homes. Today, colonial is used as a general term for almost anything that is or hints of the early days of Americana. In this case, there were three simple homes that lay along this stretch of real estate: the Benjamin Coker House, was a first period home, simple, one-room deep and probably not even facing directly High Street. The second was the John Weed House, up close to the street and not very imposing and finally, an average-sized structure that lay at 71 High.
Mr. Coker was a first generation American. His father had been born in 1606 in England and had brought his first wife, Catherine. Life was tough and though records are not clear, he ended up marrying his second wife, Martha Chubb a few years later. Benjamin was born on June 30th, 1650 probably in the home that bears his name. His profession was ship carpenter which meant that he was one of the earliest pioneers in the shipbuilding industry that would flourish expansively later in the 18th century. He obviously had his ambitions, marrying into the very prominent Ipswich family of Perley. He was married to Martha Perley on May 31st, 1678. Martha was the daughter of Allen & Susanna. He ended up with seven children: Benjamin, Jr. Hannah, Moses, Sarah, Mary, Mercy, John & Judith. Can you imagine all of this family living in that small home?
The home itself has a general construction date of 1650 to 1700, putting it in the same category as such notable first period homes as The Pettingill House (The oldest house in Newburyport), Swett-Ilsley House and the Coffin. It’s importance is due to the fact that very few first period homes are still in existence in Newburyport. Being a tough and hard life as a ship’s carpenter, Benjamin Coker died in March of 1705.
As more and more wealthy merchants and industrialists began to live on ‘The Ridge’, the humble homes became an awkward presence and disrupted the grand sweep of the line of mansions. Some attempt to upscale the home was made by expanding it and trying to infuse ‘Georgian’ features. Failing that, in 1856, John Noyes purchased the home and had it moved to its present location on State Street. Once there, it was sold to Solomon Haskell who established a farm on the new location. The Haskells continued to own the home well into the twentieth century. The John Weed House at 53 High was purchased many times and upgraded from its First Period architecture but never ended up being moved. The third house was removed because it was owned by Hiram Wood, rum maker. Due to the Abolitionists campaign against the Triangle Trade and the growing Temperance Movement, this home which became known as ‘Rum Cottage’ was moved to 158 State because it had attained a ‘stigma’ and was not considered suitable for the ‘proper’ residents of The Ridge.
The Benjamin Coker House, sometimes labeled as the John Noyes House; being a First Period home makes it one of the most important to preserve in the city. This importance is apparently been fully appreciated by the owner, Terrance B. Monahan. Purchased in 1986, the owner undertook the expensive process to ensure the home was listed on the National Register of Historic Places and had it granted in 1990. Being now adaptively re-used as a commercial business, this was not done because Mr. Monahan was a history fanatic, but because significant tax credits are issued if historic renovations are conducted on a commercial building. If anyone swings by now, and can see how it looked back in 1984; this is one smart businessman*!
* This, of course, is suggesting that those who don’t go after historic preservation tax credits are ‘not so smart’!