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.
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.
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.
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.