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January 28, 2014

Institutions for the ages

Editor’s Note: As part of its series reflecting on the city’s 250th anniversary, The Daily News today focuses on buildings that were prominent in the past and are still integral to the community today.

NEWBURYPORT — The stately Newburyport Superior Courthouse on High Street, which anchors the venerable Bartlet Mall, has one of the most storied histories of any structure in the city.

Indeed, it is considered the oldest regularly operating courthouse in the United States, according to local Judge Richard E. Welch III, who is also a historian.

It opened in 1805, and has been the site of a countless number of trials and adjudications on both criminal and civil matters.

Designed by famed architect Charles Bulfinch, it has hosted both great legal jurists and the troubled unwashed in its two centuries.

John Quincy Adams, a future president, handled his first cases there. Legal luminary and famed orator Daniel Webster was a well-known figure at the courthouse. Prominent local jurists, including Rufus Choate and Caleb Cushing, also practiced there.

Over the years, its exterior has undergone some transformations. In 1853, the city sold the courthouse to the county. County officials remodeled the outside of the building, “to reflect the more solid Italianate style typical of many American public buildings of the time.” For decades, it served the local needs of justice.

In 1976, the courthouse suffered serious damage when political radicals planted explosives in the building. While considerable damage was done, no one gave up on this iconic structure. Renovations were completed three years later. The courthouse has not been altered since then.

Judge Welch has written, “Whether one is a juror, litigant, a lawyer or a judge, one treads with history in this courthouse.”

Custom House Maritime Museum

The Custom House on Water Street was built in 1835 by the federal government to replace the structure that was lost in the Great Fire of 1811.

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