"The he houses, taken collectively, make a better appearance than those of any other town in New England." It is hard to civil with that estimate of Newburyport, even though it was written in 1796. Newburyport was then, and is today, a small (population 15,900) Massachusetts city in the far northeast corner of the state. It sits on the south bank of the Merrimack, where the river meets the sea, and boasts a fine wide harbor, a beautiful beach and enough shops and first-rate restaurants to pique nearly every taste and interest. But the lure of Newburyport remains those handsome houses that Yale president Timothy Dwight, 190 years ago, spoke the plain truth about. And he wrote long before Newburyport's grand Victorians were built.
A walk down the three miles of High Street, the city's main thoroughfare, offers an incomparable prospect on the architectural heritage of the 18th and 19th centuries. Here stand Colonial, Georgian, Federal Period, Greek Revival, Victorian, Queen Anne and Third Empire treasures, one after the other, like so many texts on the permanence of beauty.
Off on the side streets you can see "half-houses," as they are called, dating from the 17th and early 18th centuries. Their squat shapes and weathered exteriors are not so impressive as the great white houses on High Street, but go inside, as my wife and I did with the help of some knowledgeable real estate agents, and let the charm of the rough-beamed ceilings and wide-board floors, as well as the warm glow of the 10-by-five-foot fireplaces, work on you. Wouldn't it be marvelous, you'll no doubt wind up thinking, as we did, to live in one of these cozy originals?
To judge by the testimony of the storekeepers and restaurant owners I spoke to, more and more visitors to Newburyport have been answering that question in the affirmative. Massachusetts' smallest city has become a mecca for young professionals who work in the booming high-tech industries along I-495 and Route 128, as well as in Boston, about an hour's drive to the south. "This may be the one town in America," one shopowner told me, "where Yuppies are proud to say they're Yuppies."
Fifteen years ago, Market Square, the city's downtown, was a wasteland of abandoned brick warehouses. Now it is a Georgetownesque shopping center.
Just up Green Street from Market Square, you can get a gourmet lunch or dinner at the Scandia Restaurant. I had an artfully seasoned fish stew for lunch; a broth-kissed mixture of scallops, oysters, clams and quahogs, it was delicious.
Ten Center Street Ltd., around the corner from Scandia, features a lovely colonial-period dining room and bar and offers a menu of traditional new England savories. For plainer and cheaper fare, The Grog, on Middle Street, is worth a visit; you can get lobster pie there, can most nights, right through the year, you can listen to live music performed by the likes to Tom Paxton and Doc Watson. Just a few doors from The Gros is Middle Street Foods, a gourmet takeout and restaurant.
Lunch over, you can tarry in the shops, explore the narrow lanes of Market Square or walk over to Pleasant Street for a look at the Unitarian Church, whose magnificent white steeple is a monument to the stark God of old New England.
On the "Historic Newburyport" sign on Route 95, some wag has painted in a "Pre" before the "Historic." He or she has a point; the first settlers arrived in Newburyport way back in 1635. They had come up the Parker River from nearby Ipswich, and they called the town they established "Newbury." In 1642, a "New Town" was built along the Merrimack, a few miles north of Newbury; by 1764, it had become Newburyport.
The early residents of both Newbury and Newburyport had names like Sewall, Moody, Short, Brown and Browne, Noyes, Parker, Woodbridge and Kent. Their daily lives were ruled by the stern Puritanism they had brought with them from England. In his "Sketch of the History of Newbury, Newburyport and West Newbury," written in 1845, Joshua Coffin includes this droll entry under his account of the year 1637.
"In April, one hundred and sixty men, under the command of captain Stoughton, were raised to go against the Pequods. Of this number Newburyport raised eight, Ipswich seventeen, Salem eighteen, Lynn sixteen, and Boston twenty-six. It will serve to give the reader some idea of the all-pervading influence of the theological discussions which were then agitating the whole community, to inform him, on the authority of Neal, that these very troops deemed it necessary to halt on their march to Connecticut, in order to decide the question, whether they were under a covenant of grace or a covenant of works, deeming it improper to advance till that momentous question was settled."
In the 18th century, Newburyport became a shipbuilding town -- 90 ships were launched in 1772 alone -- and it remained one until the early 20th century. The War of Independence (1775-1783) was bad for business, for it closed the English ports through which Newburyport had established a lucrative trade in lumber and other goods. It was also bad for the town's ships, 24 of which were lost in privateering raids against the British.
The war won, Newburyport entered its Golden Age, which saw imports for just one month, in 1805, soar to $800,000, and the population double. Most of the finest houses on High Street date from this period, their captain-owners having made fortunes as privateers and traders.
But Jefferson's Embargo Act, the "Great Fire" of 1811 and the War of 1812 put an end to the prosperity. The population began to decline; shipbuilding slowed and, in 1901, stopped. As the shoe and textile mills along the upper Merrimack succumbed to southern competition in the early 20th century, Newburyport, for so long their conduit to a waiting world, fell on hard times.
In the 1960s, urban renewal might have bulldozed Newburyport's somnolent downtown out of existence, but the historic preservation movement came along in the nick of time. In 1971, Market Square was designated a National Historic District.
In addition to walking and gaping, eating and shopping, that else is there to do in Newburyport? Well, there is an 11-mile-long barrier island and beach to hike over or loll on, depending on the season. It's called Plum Island, and it's just outside town. Half of it is given over to the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, which covers 460 acres of marsh, tidal bay and dunes.
If you like to fish, you can rent a boat for a day's fishing. You can also visit the Maritime Museum on Water Street; it was closed when I visited, but I have it on reliable authority that it provides an instructive historical perspective on Newburyport.
There are very old graves to see, and feel beckoned back in time by, at the Old Hill burying Ground and at the even older Sawyers Hill cemetery.
And finally there are the houses. Of the four that are open to the public, perhaps the most interesting is the Pierce-Knapp-Healy House, at 47 High Street. Built around 1812 by Capt. Benjamin Pierce, "a wealthy owner of privateers," as the guidebook "A Guide to Newburyport and the Merrimack" identifies him, it features painted wallpaper by Dufour and Leroy of Paris and otherwise speaks in a thousand details of the grade and grandeur of a lost age that lives again in Newburyport.