The wisteria climbing over the front entrance has almost as much fame as the legacy of the house. In fact, this home has enjoyed some renaissance since the Nelson’s took over the home in 1996. The carriage house has been restored and has become recently a favorite venue for local concerts.
In 1803, the Reverend James Morse, minister of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church lived here while serving as pastor until 1842. In that time, he became one of the organizers of the Merrimack Bible Society that was the forerunner of the modern-day Gideon’s in that the main mission was to get the Bible into the hands of those in need. He was also deeply involved in The Newburyport Academy that was on the ‘Ridge’ at 81-83 High Street and the Newburyport Athenaeum. Consequently the Athenaeum met initially at the Academy before moving on to the Market Square Firehouse and meeting in the hall upstairs. The Athenaeum was dedicated to bringing speakers from across the country to Newburyport to speak and inspire Newburyport citizens about the goings on around the country and the world.
Even though unlike other homes of the Federalist-style, this two story building definitely possesses most of the characteristics except for a few minor Greek Revival additions like the Roman Doric Porch and a hip-roof more akin to the earlier Georgian style.
The heirs of the Reverend Morse kept the home until 1851 when it was sold to Enoch Williams. This house therefore became strongly linked to the new and upcoming industrial revolution that was turning Newburyport from a port city to a mill town. He was one of the incorporators of the Newburyport Steam Cotton Company established in 1837. It was located on the wharf just west of the railroad tracks where present day Rivers Edge Condominiums are located. Being one of the first mills in town, it didn’t do as well as had been hoped and it closed after being in operation about six years and went out of business in 1843.
This did not financially hurt Mr. Williams as he had moved on to financing. In 1836, he became one of the directors of the Newburyport Five Cents Bank. He also served as alderman (City Councilor) in 1856 and 1857.
In 1869, Warren Currier purchased the home. His business was under the firm Sumner, Swasey and Currier at 45 Water Street. He in turn sold it in 1893 to A.T. Ross. Henry Learned purchased the home in 1918 and it stayed in the family all the way to 1995 when Vassar College briefly owned it (bequeathed).
It was the Learned’s who put the main gardens around the house. In addition to the ancient and well-noted wisteria, they planted hawthorn trees along the driveway. They also placed an espaliered apple tree on the side of the old carriage house and the lovely old cherry tree at the corner. There is a series of terraces descending from the formal upper garden to progressively informal spaces.
On one of the terraces, ‘gas plants’ (Dictamnus) lie. The common name refers to the volatile, flammable vapor that is emitted from the flowering plant. At dusk, on a humid summer evening, Miss Learned was noted to have summoned guests for cocktails and when conditions were just right, ignite the vapors as her guests stood watching mesmerized!
The Nelsons have expanded the enjoyment of this historic garden by installing a new kitchen in the back and an outdoor dining space that is centered toward the back yard with large windows and optional screens for the summer.
The great thing about the present owners, Theodore R. (Ted) & Jenny Nelson, is their dedication as stewards of the property and to the general concepts of historic preservation.
1851 Plan of Newburyport, Mass H. McIntire
1851-1871 City Directories
1872 Map of the City of Newburyport, Mass. D.G. Beers and Co.
A. Hale, Old Newburyport Houses, Boston, 1912.
J. J. Currier, History of Newburyport 1764-1905, Vol. I and II, reprint, Newburyport, 1977.
J. M. Howells, The Architectural Heritage of the Merrimack, New York 194I.
Assessor’s Records 1890-1980
R. Cheney, History of Merrimack River Shipbuilding, Newburyport, 1964.
Newburyport, 2011, City of Newburyport Vision Appraisal Online Records.
Newburyport Historic District, www.newburyporthistoricdistrict.org, Historic Survey of the National Register of Historic Places, 1984.
Grand Gardens of High Street, the 25th Anniversary Garden Tour, The Historical Society of Old Newbury, Newburyport, 2004.