Market Square up State Street (Detail), The Snow Collection, The Museum of Old Newbury
Market Square and State Street to Essex and Pleasant Streets - from 1655, after the Great Fire of 1811, the twentieth century, Urban Renewal of the 1970s, and after Urban Renewal to the twenty-first century
Market Square up State Street (Detail), The Snow Collection, The Museum of Old Newbury
The Central Waterfront grew up around land granted to Captain Paul White, a merchant from Pemaquid, Maine, in 1655, twenty years after the settlement of Newbury on the banks of the Parker River. It was a relatively small parcel of land, less than half an acre, located on a point of rocks jutting into the Merrimack River. Captain White built the beginning of what became Newbury’s early port – a wharf, a warehouse, a distillery, and a dock. Other merchants soon moved into the area, adding their houses, wharves, and warehouses to the farms already near the waterfront. Through the rest of the 17th century and into the 18th century the port grew in size and importance – first shipbuilding and then later businesses and trade. The Central Waterfront remained the focus of what became the town of Newburyport when it was incorporated in 1764.
By 1770 Market Square was the center of activity for the community, and the site of the First Parish meetinghouse, which had been built in 1725 and enlarged twelve years later. The church was the focus of social life of the congregation, which included the leading merchants of the town. It was often referred to as “Rev. Mr. Cary’s Church,” after the second minister, Rev. Thomas Cary.
What is now State Street was first laid out around 1648, out and was called “the way to Watts his cellar.” Afterwards it was called “Greenleaf’s Lane.” In 1726 it was called “Fish Street,” and in 1787 it was renamed State Street.
In the 1790’s, Newburyport’s colonial merchants, many of whom lived near the waterfront, were replaced by a new group of businessmen. They built a strictly commercial business district which the people of Newburyport called “Market Square,” even though the the area was in the shape of a triangle.
The meeting house was razed in 1801 and the church was moved to Pleasant Street where it exists today, and the area was laid out as both a market and a public way. By 1810 Market Square was a lively, bustling place. Farmers arrived early in the morning to compete for a space where they could sell their produce. And the port’s butchers and fish mongers had shanties erected at the entrance to the Market Landing on the north side of the area. Many shops were organized into multiple units or “row houses,” most of which were constructed of brick by 1811.
However, in May of 1811 “The Great Fire” leveled this business district, only a few buildings survived. In response to the catastrophe, Newburyport’s selectmen enacted a building code which required that buildings had to be built of brick, it prohibited the construction of any wooden buildings that were over ten feet high. Although this legislation was repealed in 1832, most of the brick structures which survive today date from the period when the building code was enforced. The rebuilding of the area happened very quickly, and the way the buildings were used in the early 1800s when they were constructed, is similar to the way they are utilized today – the area is still a business district.
The west end of Market Square is where the Firehouse Center for the Arts is now located. The building was originally the Market House. The first floor of the Market House was built in 1822. The upper story was added the next year and was used as a lyceum – a place that provided public discussions, lectures, concerts, and entertainment. The first floor of the Market House was used as a market until 1864 when it was taken over by the Fire Department until 1980. A combination of public and private efforts restored the building, which reopened in 1991 as the Firehouse For the Arts, an example of re-adaptive use for historic preservation.
~ Most of this information is compiled from, “Port and Market, Archaeology of the Central Waterfront, Newburyport Massachusetts,” Prepared for the National Park Service, 1978
The Market House
Essex Hall, on the corner of State and Essex Streets was built later than the rest of lower State Street.
On December 8, 1915 in the Newburyport Daily News this was written:
On December 8, 1915 in the Newburyport Daily News this was written, “Photographer S. C. Reed is showing a very interesting picture of State and Essex streets from a view taken in 1845. It shows the original Essex hall building, one half its present size on the corner of the two streets, and a number of one-story buildings on State street adjoining. Low structures were erected to conform to the law passed after the great fire of 1811.”*
An 1825 deed mentions only land on that corner. In 1830 Stephen W. Marston bought the land and the existing buildings.** The 1851 Map shows that the buildings, which do not match the footprint of the building that exists today, says, “S. W. Marston.”
Stephen Webster Marston (1787-1873) was born at Fairly, Vermont, on December 28, 1787. He was appointed justice of the Newbury Police court in 1833, and held that office until 1866, in the local papers he is often referred to as “Judge Marston.” He died in Newburyport on August 27, 1873. His obituary in the Newburyport Herald describes him as a “prominent and respected citizen of Newburyport until his death.” It also goes on to say that, “No man was more widely known by all classes in town than he, his connection with the Police Court, and his general business having brought him in contact with people of every class and grade in society.”***
On September 17, 1858, in the Newburyport Daily Herald there is an item that says this:
“To Let: Essex Hall, in the new block recently erected by Judge Marston, on State street, having been fitted with settees capable of seating from four to five hundred persons, is now ready to be leased by the day or evening, for Lectures, Concerts, Social Dancing Parties and other respectable purposes. The hall is one of the finest lecture rooms in the State; it is light, well ventilated, and well supplied with gas fixtures, which give the room an airy and social appearance.”
Essex Hall is a massive in scale compared to the rest of that area on State Street, it makes sense that it was built much later than shortly after the Fire of 1811. In the Newburyport Historic Survey of 1999, there is a question that it might have been an early design by the architect Rufus Sargent. I could find nothing that would corroborate that theory, but it is intriguing idea. 72-80 State Street, which is diagonally across the street and was designed by Rufus Sargent, also has the same large mass with a smaller section that is part of the same building. It is possible that Rufus Sargent was the architect, but so far it is unproven.
And Essex Hall was used as a hall for all sorts of things for almost a century and a half, including meetings by abolitionists and at one point there was even a 12 x 6 foot portrait of George Washington when it was used as masonic lodge.^* In the late 1980s Essex Hall was renovated and since that time it has been used as living quarters. The Essex Hall building continues to have offices on the second floor and stores on the three storefronts on the main level.
~ History and research by Mary Baker Eaton
* Ron Irving Collection, The Newburyport Public Library Archival Center
** Salem Deeds
*** History of Newburyport, Mass, 1764-1905, John J. Currier and the Newburyport Herald, August 29, 1873
^* “Ould Newbury”: Historical and Biographical Sketches, John James Currier
By the mid to late 1950s Massachusetts was trying to deal with the fading of the post-war economic boom, striking unions, rusting industrial complexes and fleeing manufacturers taking jobs with them as they left for friendlier business environments. And in Newburyport, the economy and historic downtown center was crumbling. The original plan was to demolish downtown and have it be a shopping mall. However, there were a group of citizens which persuaded the town that restoring the buildings was the way to prosperity. (Please see Renewal.)
Newburyport in the 1960s and during the restoration of downtown
Today, after the restoration and preservation of the 1970s, Market Square and downtown Newburyport has become an example on a national level of how historic preservation can not only restore an historic downtown but also an entire community.
Downtown Newburyport after the restoration in the 1970s
Downtown Newburyport 2019
A great deal of gratitude and thanks for the generosity of the Museum of Old Newbury for the use of the photographs of the Snow Collection, to the Newburyport Public Library Archival Center for the use of their collections, including the Emerson collection, the John Moak Collection and the Bill Lane Collection, and to Bob Watts for his photograph of the Firehouse Center for the Arts.
Check Out The Interactive History Map
More information about Newburyport and its history can be found on the interactive history map, “Newburyport – Keeping the Story Alive.”
Solve The Downtown Newburyport Puzzle
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