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Port in Progress

March 30, 2007

Custom House struggles to find its way

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NEWBURYPORT | Like the city it has served for 172 years, the old granite building on Water Street has seen its share of ups and downs.

It's served as an East Coast hub for international trade, as a maritime museum filled with nautical artifacts, and even as a scrapyard for junk.

The Custom House, with its prime location on the corner of Newburyport's downtown, is one of the many buildings spared from the destruction of Urban Renewal in the 1960s.

It was envisioned as the cultural anchor of the waterfront revitalization, a destination location for tourists to entice them into the revived downtown. It would give Newburyport an impressive and lively showpiece to display its proud history, much like Plimoth Plantation and the Mayflower II has made Plymouth a favorite tourist destination.

Some four decades later, that vision has yet to be realized.

"It is an important part of the downtown and kind of a keystone for the NRA for that side of the downtown," said Byron Matthews, a former Newburyport mayor who helped get federal money to save the building. "We just wanted to be sure that that building was secured, to be sure it was safe for prosperity. It is a very important structure and has great history in Newburyport."

When the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority first took control of the building in 1968 it was the home of the Checkoway junk yard, which "literally had submarine parts sticking out the windows," said Carol McPherson, the curator of the Custom House. Checkoway had bought a surplus Navy submarine and systematically dismantled it, selling off its parts.

"They stored old material and steel and everything else in that structure," Matthews said. "The roof had a hole in it the size you could put a truck through."

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