by Prudence Fish
Since 1923 when the Leonard Kraske statue of the Gloucester Fisherman, the “Man at the Wheel” was dedicated on Gloucester’s newly constructed Stacy Boulevard this iconic portrayal of a fisherman looking out to sea has become part of Gloucester’s identity. It is a rare visitor to Cape Ann who doesn’t go to the Boulevard to view the landmark listed on the National Register of Historic Places and perhaps have their picture taken in front of it.
In fact, thousands upon thousands of photos, including postcards and even paintings depict this famous statue. Just look online at sites such as eBay and the endless images of the Man at the Wheel. Its importance is immediately apparent.
In the background of these pictures stands a long row of old houses lining the inland side of the Boulevard. Some go back to the 18th century; many are from the 19th century. Over time they have changed as old houses do but all are still standing, forever recorded in these photos.
Babson’s History of the Town of Gloucester, 1860, says that at the close of the Revolutionary War there were only three houses between the “Cut” and Tally’s corner. The “Cut” is the canal connecting the Annisquam River with Gloucester Harbor. When Babson wrote about this neighborhood in “View of the Town at the Close of the War”, only two of the original three 18th century houses remained. The “close of the war”, by the way, means the Revolutionary War.
One of the two has not been identified but we know that the old house at 53-55 Western Ave. now the Inn at Babson Court, was one of these 18th century houses. This mid 18th century house had to be one of the two remaining houses. It was owned by Samuel Stevens. Samuel Stevens was the owner of the Pine Tree Tavern built on land purchased by his ancestor, William Stevens.
In the 18th century it is hard to believe but there were nearly 300 slaves in the Town of Gloucester owned by the wealthiest merchants and sea captains. Once each year these blacks were given a day off. They congregated here in this neighborhood at the Pine Tree Tavern on the Boulevard for a day of fun and games and conviviality. Clearly, the Pine Tree Tavern occupied one of the three houses that were extant at that time. It is not certain which one was the tavern but there is the distinct possibility that it was the Inn at Babson Court. The location of the Pine Tree Tavern was some 300 feet from the bridge bringing it into the immediate neighborhood. It is nice to think that the hospitality given out so generously by the modern day innkeepers at the Inn at Babson Court is a continuation of the hospitality shown by Samuel Stevens at the Pine Tree Tavern so long ago.
But now, that familiar backdrop of old houses standing as they have for centuries is in peril of changing. In the near future that familiar scene on the postcards and souvenirs may never look the same. Why? After trying to sell the Inn at Babson Court off and on for several years the innkeepers received an offer; the only one the eager sellers have received. They have long wanted to retire and here was their chance. There is a catch! The offer comes with the terrible news that the new buyer’s plan for an eight unit condominium project calls for demolition of the Inn at Babson Court.
This is sad news for all of us and especially the present owners. I know personally how much of themselves Paul and Donald have put into this house, especially Paul with all his artistic surprises and delightful details that have charmed their guests for many years.
Gloucester has no demolition delay ordinance or demolition review of any kind whatsoever and no historic district covering the Boulevard. There is nothing to stand in the way of the demolition. If this happens the view from the Man at the Wheel with the familiar background, will forever be changed.
But that is not all the bad news!
Just a few doors down the street another antique house, a survivor from the 19th century is facing imminent demolition.
This house at 73-75 Western Avenue is a dignified center entrance late Federal period residence.
I have not been inside and do not know what antique features are left but I know the façade well and have admired the integrity of its exterior and front façade including the long side ell on the left side. Old photos portray this house painted white with shutters and a tidy fence surrounding the yard, not unlike so many on the Boulevard over one hundred years ago.
The house was built on land owned by Joseph Procter, just one of a long line of Joseph Procters. It may not have been his homestead but was the homestead of his son, Joseph Johnston Proctor followed by Joseph Osborn Proctor. The Procters’ role in the history of Gloucester is huge. They were heavily involved in the fisheries and many local organizations. Ultimately they owned a number of houses along the Boulevard including the Inn at Babson Court as well as the stately house at 73-75 Western Avenue.
Joseph J. Procter was born in 1802 and married Eliza Ann Gilbert in 1826. This couple had eleven children before Joseph died unexpectedly in September 2, 1848. His death was followed by the death of a one year old son just two weeks later. Eliza Ann lived in the house until her death in 1887.
At this time the house was sold to Hiram Rich, a poet (1832-1901), who worked at the Cape Ann National Bank. Hiram Rich was widely published in many periodicals including the Atlantic Monthly. Not too long ago in the Gloucester Times John Ronan called Hiram Rich an underrated poet who was important to Gloucester.
The stories of the people who occupied these two houses and what they meant to Gloucester are extensive. It is sad to think that soon, in a matter of hours, all traces of these historic houses can be obliterated.
If this bothers you, please attend the Demolition Review Workshop and voice your thoughts.
Regional Demolition Review Workshop
Open to the public. Free.
Hosted by the Gloucester Historical Commission
Monday, September 28, 7-9 pm
Kyrouz Auditorium, Gloucester City Hall, 9 Dale Ave.
Find out what a Demolition Delay Ordinance would mean for you and your community.
See how demolition review is working in nearby cities and towns.
M. E. Lepionka, Co-Chair, Gloucester Historical Commission
EDITOR’S NOTE: There is now a lively discussion of this issue on the Enduring Gloucester facebook page.
Click here to read Prudence Fish’s blog, Antique Houses of Gloucester and Beyond.