Cushing House Museum
A visit to the Cushing House Museum is like a visit to a weathy uncle with a collection of amazing curiosities from .his travels around the world. This 21-room Federal-style mansion, headquarters of the Historical Society of Old Newbury, not only contains a large collection of maritime and other historical objects, but also evokes the sophisticated 19th-century lifestyle of a prominent Massachusetts family.
The house at 98 High Street in Newburyport is sometimes called the Hunt-Cushing House, a reference to the original builder, William Hunt, a sea captain. Hunt began construction in 1808, at a time when mansions of wealthy maritime traders were springing up all along High Street. Set on a ridge, these houses were positioned to overlook the river yet were safely removed from the hurly-burly coarseness of the wharves and ships.
Hunt died in 1811, but his widow, Sarah, continued to live there. A need for additional income caused her to sell the north-facing half of the house in 1818 to John Newmarch Cushing, a shipowner and captain. Descended from Matthew Cushing, a Puritan who came to America in 1638, John was part of a family with a long history of involvement in the religious and governmental affairs of Massachusetts. He moved to Newburyport, one of America’s largest ports at the time, in 1802 for the many opportunities it offered. Very successful, he became master and part owner of his first ship, the 303-ton Hester, before the age of 30.
Sold the remaining half of the house
Sarah Hunt sold the remaining half of her house to Cushing in 1822. It was the Cushing family home for the next 133 years. Among John’s children were three sons: Caleb, William and John, Jr. All three would become experienced world travelers. William and John, Jr. carried on in their father’s business, both becoming wealthy shipbuilders. Their half-brother, Caleb, turned to politics, forging a distinguished career that made him one of Newburyport’s leading citizens. A graduate of Harvard and Harvard Law School, Caleb was elected representative of the Massachusetts General Court at age 26. He traveled to France where he visited numerous gardens, the elaborate formal designs of which he later applied to the family home. After serving four terms as Congressman, he was appointed a special envoy to China in 1842. Described by a contemporary as, “a man of prodigious intellectual and physical energy; with no taste for recreation, no willingness for rest,” Cushing bought every book he could find on China and began his study of the Chinese language. This he added to his command of Latin, Greek, French, Spanish, Italian, and Danish.
A few years later, using his own money, Caleb raised a regiment to fight in the Mexican-American War. He returned home to become Newburyport’s first mayor in 1851. President Pierce appointed him Attorney General in 1853 and he later served as an advisor to President Lincoln and as Ambassador to Spain. Although rarely at home, Caleb maintained his residence at 98 High Street until 1849, when his father died. Caleb then bought another property on High Street, while William and John, Jr. divided the family house in half and continued to live there. In 1869, with Caleb spending more time in Washington, William moved into Caleb’s house, leaving the old family residence exclusively to John Jr.
Old house improvements
John Jr. had an ongoing interest in gardening and horticulture, which he passed on to his children, most notably, his daughter Margaret, born in 1855. When she moved back into her family home after the death of her father in 1904, the French-style garden started by her grandfather and uncle became one of her principal interests. Margaret never married and lived at 98 High Street, much of the time with her bachelor brother, until her death at age 100.
French style garden
In contrast to some old houses where financial constraints precluded improvements, the Cushing house remained unchanged because Margaret saw its preservation as a way to honor the memory of her ancestors. In 1955, her heirs gave the house to the Historical Society of Old Newbury. The decision to offer the house to the historical society was an apt one considering its collections. In 1772, an association formed in Newburyport called the Marine Society sought to improve the public’s knowledge of the sea and navigation, as well as to provide relief for impoverished families of mariners. The group eventually amassed a large collection of nautical-related items. The Marine Society was defunct by 1909 and its collection was merged with that of the local historical society, begun in 1877. The merged collection now includes 19th-century toys, Hawaiian Island quilts, Oriental artifacts, portraits, needlework, silver, and clocks along with Cushing family objects.
The Cushing House Museum is open to the public from May I to October 31, Tuesday through Saturday, by appointment at other times. Admission is charged.
The eighth president
Although his career took him to Washington, D.C., and Great Britain, Martin Van Buren, the eighth president of the United States, always returned to his birthplace of Kinderhook, New York, just south of Albany.
He retired to his hometown, spending his years in an estate that he envisioned as a sort of northern Monticello. The elegant house and surrounding lands, which he dubbed Lindenwald in honor of the site’s many linden trees, were purchased in 1976 by the National Park Service and are now open to the public.
Van Buren generally is less well remembered than other early presidents. He was not a wartime leader like Washington and Lincoln, not a military hero, and lacked a colorful personality like Andrew Jackson. If anything, there has been a sense of negativity surrounding him: His administration presided over the worst economic depression America had yet seen, The Panic of 1837, as well as the forcible removal of American Indians from their homes in the East, leading to the infamous “Trail of Tears.”
His enemies gave him nicknames such as “The Fox of Kinderhook,” and “The Little Magician.” But those who knew him well liked him and were loyal. His supporters included Andrew Jackson, who preceded Van Buren as president, and South Carolinian John C. Calhoun, who became a bitter critic of Jackson over tariffs and states’ rights, but continued to support Van Buren. Van Buren’s proponents point out that these events were largely out of his control. To his credit, he initiated the independent treasury system and opposed the extension of slavery to new territories.
Van Buren was born to Abraham and Marie Hoes Van Buren in 1782, the final year of the Revolutionary War. His parents, well-off though living modestly, owned a tavern that was Martin’s boyhood home. Tavern life brought him into constant contact with all kinds of people, which no doubt contributed to his noted affability, social agility, and courtliness. His ancestors had come to the Hudson River valley 150 years earlier from Holland. As a young boy, Van Buren spoke Dutch, learning English when he began attending school. Demonstrating an aptitude for debate, Van Buren decided to become a lawyer and began his apprenticeship at age 14, as a clerk to a local attorney. By 20, he had completed his apprenticeship in New York City and was admitted to the state bar.
Van Buren’s law practice in Kinderhook flourished, and he became active in local Democratic-Republican Party (this party was a precursor to today’s Democratic Party) politics. He was elected state senator in 1812 and appointed attorney general of New York the following year. For the next eight years, Van Buren immersed himself in the rough-and-tumble party politics of New York.
Meanwhile, Van Buren had married Hannah Hoes, a distant relative on his mother’s side. They had four sons, the last of whom was born in Albany after the family moved there in 1812. Although their marriage was a happy one, it was short-lived. Hannah died in 1819, when she was 36 years old. The elder two boys were already enrolled in Albany Academy; the younger two were sent to live with Hannah’s sister, Christine. His sons remained in various academies until adulthood, seeing their father mainly on holidays.
The political story
Van Buren was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1821. During the next seven years, he helped form the Democratic Party. He also managed the campaign of the party’s first presidential candidate, Andrew Jackson, ensuring his sweep into office in 1828. In the same year, Van Buren was elected governor of New York, a post he held only 71 days, until Jackson appointed him Secretary of State. He resigned from that position under political pressure in 1831, but Jackson immediately appointed him ambassador to Great Britain. The Senate refused to confirm his appointment. He became vice president to Jackson in his 1833 reelection and then president in 1837. But all his efforts weren’t enough to help him gain re-election in 1841. Opponent William Henry Harrison took advantage of a fiscal depression to paint Van Buren as an addled, used-up man whose extravagant tastes were in stark opposition to his own man-of-the-people image.
The presidental style house
Before his term ended, Van Buren bought a house with 137 acres of land in Kinderhook. Judge Peter Van Ness built the brick Georgian house in 1797, but Van Buren must have known that this property once belonged to his paternal grandmother’s family.
In May 1841, Van Buren moved into the house full-time and immediately set to work improving it. He removed a stairway in the wide center hall, which he then had papered with 51 vividly colored panels imported from France that composed a scene entitled Landscape of the Hunt. The hall became his dining room with luxury set of table, reclining chair, and other furnitures. where he entertained friends and visiting dignitaries. He also added a bathroom where he invited guests to “wash off the impurities of Mammon.” Outside, he planted a large garden, built a greenhouse, installed fruit orchards, and dug a deep well to supply a series of fishponds. His farmhands successfully grew vegetables and tended livestock. Despite his continuing involvement in politics during these years, which included another run for the presidency as a Free-Soil party candidate in 1848, he listed his occupation as “farmer.”
The presidental style house
The greatest change to Lindenwald occurred in 1849, when the house was completely remodeled. Van Buren had offered Lindenwald to his youngest son, Smith, if he would live in it and get involved in managing the farm. Smith agreed under the condition that he be allowed to expand and improve the aging house. With his father’s approval, Smith hired Richard Upjohn, an architect known for designing churches (his best known is Trinity Church in New York City). Upjohn returned a design based on the emerging Italianate style, with hints of his earlier Gothic work. Chief among the design elements were a four-story tower, a central gable, attic dormers, and an elaborate porch. The finished house was painted a bright yellow. The elder Van Buren said: “The idea of seeing in life, the changes which my heir would be sure to make after I am gone, amuses me.”
The new plan also called for kitchen stoves, running water, a furnace, and many additional rooms, making Lindenwald quite luxurious. With few exceptions, Van Buren spent the last decade of his life close to home. He died in 1862.
The house passed out of family hands only a year after the president’s death. At various times, it was used as a private residence, a nursing home, and an antiques shop. When the National Park Service acquired it in 1976, it was in poor condition. Park Service conservators spent years restoring the house before it was opened to the public in 1982. The interiors reflect the period between 1850 and 1862, with numerous documented family pieces of furniture, and elegant wallpapers reproduced from original fragments. Van Buren himself would feel quite at home in the restored center hall: His large dining table and carpet have been exactly reproduced.