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November 24, 2012

Old waterfront painting playing role in modern development

NEWBURYPORT – An oil painting of Newburyport’s waterfront in the early 1800s is playing a central role in what could be the first building project to take place on the downtown waterfront since 1968.

Painted by an unknown artist, the painting is a spectacular rendering of a day in the life of Newburyport citizens as seen from the eye of the artist, who appears to have set about his work in the vicinity of what’s now the intersection of Green and Pleasant streets, next to the site that decades later would become City Hall.

In muted, colorful shades of yellow, red and brown, it depicts how the historic property located at 40 Merrimac St., which owner Jay Leone is attempting to renovate into a two-story restaurant and ale house, sat on the very edge of the riverfront, at the farthest reach of a thriving commercial area known as Somerby Landing.

Today, the building sits 100 or more yards from the river’s edge. As is the case with most of the city’s waterfront, a wide strip of what 200 years ago was open water is now dry land, built on fill that was dumped into a tidal area that once housed wharves and docks.

According to resident Bill Harris, who chairs the Chapter 91 Committee which seeks preservation of public access to the waterfront, he happened upon the painting in the 1970s when attempting to preserve public ways in the midst of urban renewal. From a reference to the painting in The Daily News, he followed its trail to a museum in Cooperstown, N.Y., which provided him a certified photographic copy of the piece. Its origins are a mystery, created by an artist from Cooperstown with ties to Newburyport, but the story the painting tells of life on the waterfront in the early days of Newburyport proves that land gifted in 1752 to the town of Newbury by Henry Somerby was a thriving commercial area.

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