By Dyke Hendrickson
---- — 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.
Created by noted architect Robert Mills, who designed the Washington monument and other federal buildings, it was constructed at a cost of $23,000 — a large sum but one that the prosperous community could afford.
It housed the offices of the Newburyport Custom District, a tax-collecting branch of the U.S. Treasury Department.
Although the sturdy stone edifice is a museum today, it has served numerous functions over the years. Due to its location near the water, the building stood through many of the most enduring events of the city. In 1913, the federal government sold the Custom House, and it began a new period as a result of being managed by private interests. The building was used as the Custom Shoe Heel Company from 1922 to 1936.
After World War II, the building changed hands and served as a scrap-metal factory/junk shop.The structure fell into disrepair, and in 1968, the Newburyport Maritime Society took on the mission of renovating the building so it could serve as a community resource.
In 1975, the Custom House Maritime Museum opened and has offered guests and residents alike a look at the community’s vibrant maritime history. Its exhibits cover from 1790 to 1840. The 1790 period focuses on the time of trade with the West Indies, and the 1820 to 1850 epoch represents the halcyon days of boat building in the city.
The Institution for Savings
The Institution for Savings is among the oldest financial institutions in the area, and it got its start in 1820.
Organizers were prominent in the community, and many names are recognizable today: William Bartlet, Moses Brown, John Pettingell, Thomas Carter, Joshua Carter, Ebenezer Moseley, Ebenezer Wheelwright, Nathan Noyes and Oliver Prescott.
It moved several times over the early decades as it expanded to serve a growing number of customers.
In 1872 it was “removed to a new and commodious building, opposite Wolfe Tavern, on State Street, where it is located at the present time,” according to John J. Currier, whose history of the community (1909) is still a seminal work among historians.
The Newburyport Five Cents Savings Bank
This institution was incorporated in 1854.
In 1873, the Newburyport Five Cents Savings Bank purchased property on State Street, between Pleasant Street and Prince Place. It stood alongside numerous storefronts, offices and, at one point, the Masonic Temple. The bank conducted business there until 1927, when it moved across the street to its present location, according to local historian Ghlee Woodworth.
Firehouse Center for the Arts
Another building that has made the transition over the centuries is the brick structure known today as the Firehouse Center for the Arts.
It was built in 1823 as a market house and lyceum by the citizens of the community. Historians report that it hosted such speakers as Webster, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Oliver Wendell Holmes.
Perhaps because of its well-appointed location, it was converted into the Central Fire Station from the mid-1800s until 1980.
The late 1980s represented a renaissance of sorts for the community, as city leaders obtained federal and state funds to help restore the downtown. Area residents launched a fundraising campaign to restore the building as an arts center and, in 1991, the Firehouse Center opened.
Some observers say it has come full circle, from a center of thought in the early 19th century to a hallmark of local culture and arts in the early 21st century.
Newburyport City Hall
City Hall, at the corner of Green and Pleasant streets, is appreciated as a community resource today; but when residents voted in 1850 to build the structure, the vote to fund the $30,000 project was a narrow 118-108, according to a narrative on the site, www.clipperheritagetrail.com.
It was designed by local architect Col. Frederick Coffin.
And the timing was good.
On May 24, 1851, Gov. George Boutwell signed an act to establish Newburyport as a city (not a town) and the multi-talented Caleb Cushing was inaugurated as the city’s first mayor. Because of the new building, he had a place to hang his hat.
The exterior of City Hall has been refurbished in recent years.
Inside, the portraits of dozens of mayors gaze down from the walls, taking in new generations of Newburyporters who come to the municipal center to pay taxes, acquire licenses and take part in the business of government as they have for many decades.