About Me

Growing up in a small New England town with a mother who was an antiquarian it was inevitable that I would be exposed to old things. After graduating from UMass/Amherst I lived in Connecticut, taught school, married, and raised three children in suburbia. A move to Newburyport MA renewed my interest in all things old. This background has now evolved into research, writing, consulting and all the things I love to do.

Prudence Fish

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

LORD DEXTER'S "BUCKINGHAM PALACE" IN NEWBURYPORT


First in the East, first in the West and the Greatest Philosopher in the Western World”  Lord Timothy Dexter, 1746-1806

Gordon Harris of Ipswich, MA has a fabulous blog. http://ipswich.wordpress.com

 Please check it out, especially his recent blog posts featuring Lord Timothy Dexter of Newburyport, his antics and the amazing house he lived in. In fact you really should read his posts before reading what I have to say!

View of the Dexter property from the back.  (Internet photo)
My post will be a 20th century footnote to the historical background found in Gordon Harris’s blog.

In a nutshell, Timothy Dexter was not really a lord.  He bestowed that title upon himself!  He was actually an eccentric leather worker and not socially acceptable in Federal period Newburyport even though he had an unbelievable knack for making money.  He couldn't buy his way into Newburyport society.

His house was a showplace, ornamented in front by wooden statues representing prominent men of the day, the early 1800s. There were forty of them. The belvedere on the roof  with an eagle for a finial was a lovely ornament atop the large three story Georgian house built circa 1770.

The Lord Timothy Dexter House as it appeared in the early 19th century.  Note all the ornamentation and the eagle finial.
He was a familiar sight strolling around town with his hairless dog;

Timothy Dexter and his
famous hairless dog.
One of his eccentricities was to latch on to Jonathan Plummer to whom he referred as his “poet laureate”.  Plummer was Dexter’s side-kick and wrote poems about Dexter that were published in the newspaper.

Jump ahead to the late 1960s, a time when  the house was for sale and in need of new owners.  At that time I was in Gloucester with my family on summer vacation and read the story of the great house with a lot of interest.  Its story was intriguing but what did I know about Newburyport? I don't think I had ever been there. It never occurred to me that I might actually like to live there.

A year or two later, again on summer vacation, we took a Sunday drive to Newburyport.  Remembering the story of the house (who could forget it?) we stopped on State Street to ask for directions to the Lord Timothy Dexter house at 201 High Street.  As we slowly drove past the house the apparent new owners arrived home all dressed up and entered the house through the front door looking very elegant. The whole scene was terribly impressive.

By 1971 having moved from CT we found ourselves also living in Newburyport, at 357 High St.  Before long we met the owners of the Dexter House.  We, like the family living in the Dexter house, were carpetbaggers, drawn to Newburyport by its collection of wonderful houses awaiting restoration. With our interest in the urban renewal taking place it was inevitable that we would meet and become friends with the family occupying the Dexter House.

Eventually, my husband began to help the owners refurbish the third floor.  After stripping off many layers of wallpaper, they finally reached plaster in a large hallway area.  On the plaster was a little jingle written in very old fashioned penmanship.  It went something like this.:

Lord Timothy Dexter did die
and so soon shall you and I.

This little ditty was signed "Plummer".

My recollection is not 100% accurate but that was the gist of it.  Could this really have been written by Jonathan Plummer, Dexter's loyal companion and poet laureate?   I saw it and recall the very old fashioned and convincing handwriting.  That area was left alone and no one painted over it, preserving this quaint rhyme.

Years went by, the house was sold twice and then tragedy struck. It was August 15, 1988.  House painters did the unthinkable.  They used torches to burn off paint under the eaves.  You can imagine the rest.  The house went up in flames, the beautiful belvedere crashed down through the house. The third floor was destroyed and with it the writing on the plaster. Was it really a quaint reminder of Jonathan Plummer?  We will never know if it was but by the same token who can ever say that it wasn't.

By this time I was living in Gloucester.  Hearing the awful news I rushed to Newburyport and gathered with other friends and former owner to stare in disbelief at the ruins, mourn the house and commiserate the loss.  What a sad day it was!
Fighting the fire from the side street on the left side of the house and
it took four alarms and 75 fire fighters many hours to contain the fire.
What I  heard then but can’t verify is that SPNEA, now Historic New England, had the architectural drawings for the belvedere and therefore the house was able to be rebuilt with a new belvedere on the roof an exact replica of the original.    Had it not been for its rich history and the existing plans would it have been saved?  The front page of the Newburyport News.claimed the loss was $1,000,000.  But it was rebuilt and to all appearances looks the same as always on the exterior.  The stories of Lord Timothy Dexter are kept alive in Newburyport and throughout New England and beyond.  Lord Timothy Dexter’s stately house remains as always, the Buckingham Palace of Newburyport.
Building Photo
This is the left side of the house from Dexter Lane,
the same side as in the previous photo of the fire.

For me, I remember fondly all the visits to the house and the many meetings I attended in front of the great Georgian fireplace in the pine paneled library with faux mahogany paint decoration on the paneling and a slug from Dexter’s gun lodged in the wall!  I recall Truman Nelson once reminding a gathering of how privileged we were to be ensconced in that beautiful room with so much history.

For more remarkable details of this fascinating story I recommend “Lord Timothy Dexter of Newburyport, MA.  by Newburyport’s own John P. Marquand. Minton, Balch and Company, New York, 1925


Post Script

What happened?  Did Lord Timothy intervene?

This post took off like a rocket.  No other post has come close to the response to this one.  The number of "hits" were piling up rapidly until the counter reported almost 350...actually 349.  

Yesterday was a busy day and I was out of the house for several hours at a time.  I did check in occassionally and observed that the counter was stuck at 349 which I attributed to everyone being busy or at work and dismissed it.

About dinner time a friend said, "What happened to your post?  It is not online anymore.  It's gone." This friend had been communicating with another friend during the day wondering why it had disappeared.

I checked and sure enough, it was gone.   I then went back to my draft and clicked  "Publish". Nothing!  Next I clicked "update".  Nothing.

By now I was getting frantic.   What was going on?  I checked one more time and "lo and behold", there it was.  Within minutes the counter started moving again at the same pace as before it disappeared.  

I can't explain what happened.  Was it a technical problem or was it........?  I will leave it to you to draw your own conclusions! 

Now it is back and thanks to all of you for your tremendous response to this story.  

Pru

10 comments:

  1. Newburyport is indeed legendary. I have never been there, but as a collector of old architectural photographs, I have many examples from Newburyport (and immediate vicinity). So many important buildings in different styles, including colonial, federal, and some stunning Villas (early Victorian). And of course, the famous Dummer Academy, which I understand they have finally gotten around to giving a new name.
    --Jim

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    1. Hi Jim, Newburyport is a beautiful small city. Have you seen the Halliday photos online? There are a few old photos of the inside of the Dexter house that you might like.
      Thanks for reading my posts and thanks for your comments!

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  2. Again, I so appreciate all that you write about these wonderful old homes. I live in Minneapolis, and of course, we have nothing that old in our city!

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  3. for accurate information on Timothy Dexter go to www.lordtimothydexter.com

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    1. Sorry Kathy, but that is not a working web address. But if you spotted inaccuracies in the post please let me know and I will correct them.

      Thanks for responding.

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    2. The website that Kathy is referring to can be opened at http://www.lordtimothydexter.com/index.htm

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  4. Thanks for this great article. I've had the pleasure of living in the Dexter house for the past 30 years with my family (The Quills). Really loved the poem you found on the walls!

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    1. How nice of you to comment on the Dexter-Quill house story! I am so glad that you saw it and liked it. What house has more history and stories than this house! How awed I was the first time I stepped over that threshold.

      Thank you for writing!

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  5. Great article and thank you for sharing. I too have had the pleasure of living in this house. My father, William G. Quill, was adamant about restoring the house to its original condition after the fire, although we are still missing the eagle and the 40 statues. The pine fire places, however, still exist!

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    1. So glad that you also liked my post. It is nice to hear from the occupants. Too bad about the statues and the eagle! Can you imagine if they were still there? Fun to think about.

      Thanks for writing!

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