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.
“It’s the only oil painting of one of our ways to the central waterfront from around 1800,” said Harris.
On the left hand side of the painting, one can see a building with the same shape and dimensions of the Davis Auto Parts building sitting closest to the river, with a yellow façade and ship masts rising up behind it. Merrimac Street runs between that structure and a brick building that Harris says still stands today at the base of Green Street, currently the home of Walsingham Gallery. A sign reading “Room Paper” hangs from the corner of a commercial building further up Green Street, which adjoins to buildings that once stood on land now occupied by the Newburyport Police Department.
To the right is a row of what looks like residential buildings, and in the middle of the landing is a woman in a petticoat, with a carriage, and what looks like a small moveable cart.
“Perhaps it’s someone grilling something and selling it to the public,” ponders Harris.
While the painting has enormous value for those who appreciate art and history, Harris said as the city considers granting Leone variances and permits to build his new restaurant atop Somerby Landing and Brown’s Wharf, the painting is informing the process as the only known photographic proof of the public’s past rights to the land.
Henry Somerby gifted the landing to the town of Newbury in 1752, declaring it for public use and “never more to be sold.” While private landowners have managed through the years to take ownership of the boat ramp, currently owned by New England Development, during urban renewal in the 1970s the land court determined the city had no rights to take the remaining parts of the landing by eminent domain due to Somerby’s stipulation. Courts ruled that it should always be held in the public trust. Now, as the first of what could be many projects to be taken up on the waterfront since urban renewal, the relevance of that ruling is guiding Harris and others in securing the public rights of access that were intended by the man who gifted them.
“We’re now having the first new project at the central waterfront since the NRA demolished buildings in 1968,” said Harris.
Harris views Leone’s restaurant as a boon for increased waterfront access, bringing visitors to the water during off-peak hours when the public is not as likely to enjoy the area and upping revenues that will help maintain Riverside Park. But with the painting as illustration, he and the Chapter 91 Committee he represents are seeking four assurances from the owner to ensure access.
First they’re asking Leone for pedestrian walkways to the water on the east and west sides of the property, and requesting he turn a portion of his proposed second story dining room into outdoor dining to retain scenic views. They want the restaurant to provide valet service to customers so visitors can access the water. They also want assurances that should excavation be required, the owner should employ an on-call archeologist to monitor and document what lays beneath.
“They might uncover the substructure of historic buildings as they were built over three centuries ago,” said Harris. “And they might find from the colonial area what the land was used for.”
He cites previous on-call archeologists overseeing excavation at the base of Lime Street where they came across bones and other evidence to determine the residence doubled as a butchery. In the 1970s when the city was unearthing areas behind the Custom House, Harris notes they came upon a Women’s Outhouse and were surprised to find a Colonial era pipe filled with marijuana.
“In the history books there’s not one reference to women smoking marijuana on the wharf,” said Harris. “We just want someone on call.”
Harris also notes that through this process people are learning things about the utilization of waterside lands that were either unknown or had long been forgotten. For instance, Harris notes that because the waterline once reached up to just behind the current Davis Auto and Electric building, even though it was filled in years ago, there are governing laws applicable to those filled lands which prevent anything but water-dependent structures to be built upon them. Under those regulations, building a restaurant on the lands would be fine, as would a marine supply store or something of that nature. But building condominiums where the water once flowed freely would not be an acceptable use, and that’s something that Harris said the NRA might have to examine more closely before it moves forward with its plan to build 5 structures on its waterfront land to ensure the structures are appropriately set back.
“This will probably change the planning process for the central waterfront,” said Harris.