, Newburyport, MA

March 30, 2007

Custom House struggles to find its way

Stephen Tait

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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."

Matthews said he appointed two men to lead the quest for federal funding. Using money for that, the NRA was able to resurrect the building to its former appearance.

"It was very exciting to see the building transform to what it was back when it was a Custom House. It was really something," he said.

The original plans, McPherson said, were to build and display a full-scale replica of the Newburyport-built Massachusetts, the first ship built for the newly formed Coast Guard in 1791. The ship is the basis of Newburyport's claim as the birthplace of the U.S. Coast Guard.

Plans also included a maritime living history museum, similar to Plimoth Plantation but on a much smaller scale. Visitors would get a sense of the skills and trades that went into shipbuilding by stopping at a variety of workshops. Finally, the group wanted to make the Custom House building into a museum dedicated to the extensive maritime history of Newburyport.

Leaders soon figured out that only one of those goals was possible, McPherson said.

So they scraped the plan for the replica and living history center, and focused on museum.

"From that point, we were to be a cultural institution," she said.

Since opening as a museum in June of 1975, the Custom House worked to build up its collections, taking donations from local ship-owning families and others, said Bill Harris, a former member of the Maritime Society's executive board and the organizer of the Friends of the Waterfront in the 1970s. A significant portion of the collection also came from the Historical Society of Old Newbury.

"The building is in better shape now than it has been since it closed in 1912," he said. "That is because the NRA agreed to a long-term lease, the volunteer work and the fundraising they've done to help the building."

Still, there've been problems, too.

"It had several times when cash was tight," Harris said. But after public campaigns to raise money, the Custom House | and its museum | were saved. "The donors always came through."

And one of the museum's most tragic problems came in May of last year, when the "Mother's Day Flood" inundated the basement of the museum. Officials were forced to close the museum for the year and they had to sell off Lowell's Boat Shop in Amesbury to stay operational.

The musuem remains closed to the public, but is starting to host special events and will begin opening on weekends in coming weeks. Officails hope it will be fully open by the summer.

Harris said now that the Maritime Society can concentrate on the Custom House alone and has a 99-year lease from the NRA, further success is on the horizon.

"I believe that now the current board has the possibility to make the Maritime Society a major success," Harris said.

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