Polishing Its Past and Preparing Its Future

New York Times - August 13th, 2014

The Ardelle, a contemporary replica of a classic wooden fishing schooner, sails in Gloucester Harbor. CreditKayana Szymczak for The New York Times

O.K., you think you know Cape Ann, the North Shore peninsula that has been faintly patronized as Cape Cod’s little sister.

It’s there as you remember it: the granite coast, the sea spume, the panoramic view at the working port in Gloucester, the improbably picturesque harbor at Rockport and the antiquing and fried-clam indulgences of Essex. And of course, there’s the celebrated harbor excursion past Ten Pound Island, and the Singing Beach in Manchester-by-the-Sea. Also, omnipresent, is the bewitching light that obsessed Winslow Homer, Andrew Wyeth, Edward Hopper, Stuart Davis, Marsden Hartley, Fitz Henry Lane and Gordon Parks.

But it’s time to rethink what you already know. Cape Ann, Massachusetts, has become the little vacationland that could, furthering a renaissance for a community built around its 400-year-old principal port, Gloucester, now facing maritime-industry decline. As the cape is seeking to maintain a sustainable base of seafaring, manufacturing and tourism, it is focusing on its longtime reputation as a bastion of culture and a growing center for inventive cuisine.

The Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport, Mass. CreditKayana Szymczak for The New York Times

Part of this rejuvenation is underway at the 1871 Gloucester City Hall, undergoing a $10 million restoration. With a 148-foot clock tower and a 3,500-pound bronze bell from 1870, it is an ornate Second Empire landmark inspired by Independence Hall in Philadelphia.

Gloucester City Hall is locally sacred for its fishermen’s memorial mural on the wall at the main mahogany staircase, with the names of 5,000 who have died, the basis of the “Man at the Wheel” cenotaph in the harbor that was celebrated in the 2000 George Clooney film “The Perfect Storm.”

City Hall’s cheerful, site-specific, allegorical W.P.A. murals depicting the vigor of democracy and civic virtue (open to the public on weekdays) are now — post-restoration — “big, bright and largely unknown,” said Catherine Ryan, a Gloucester art consultant and historian.

The mur are definitely not like many garden-variety, stolid worker-laborer depictions from the New Deal. Painted between 1935 and 1943 by Charles Allan Winter, Frederick J. Mulhaupt and two other artists, they incorporated local politicians and ordinary citizens as models; their descendants are still in the area.

Next to city hall square is the Cape Ann Museum, scheduled to reopen Aug. 19 after a five-year renovation. “We hope our update will create a new hub for Cape Ann,” said Ronda Faloon, the director.

The renovation involved reconfiguring the 44,000-square-foot interior of the intimate, residential museum, adding galleries, a sculpture garden and park, a new lobby and orientation area, and new infrastructure in the museum’s historic 1710 and 1804 houses.

The museum’s treasures include everything from an art installation of recovered shipwreck china to an exquisitely built, three-ton, 10-foot-tall 1861 Fresnel lens with more than 1,000 glass prisms, from the Thacher Island Lighthouse. There are Homer watercolors, etchings and drawings; 25 Stuart Davis drawings; and the pre-eminent collection of paintings and drawings by Fitz Henry Lane, the Gloucester-born maritime artist.Continue reading the main storyContinue reading the main storyThe museum also sponsors “Hopper House” walking tours and offers a colorful new self-guided map highlighting 26 of the best-known houses that the prominent realist artist Edward Hopper depicted. He said of his work in Gloucester that “when everyone else would be painting ships and the waterfront, I’d just go around looking at houses.”

This year Massachusetts designated four new cultural districts on Cape Ann, based on their museums, galleries, restaurants, performance spaces and artistic communities. Visitors can now download a free Cape Ann Cultural Districts smartphone app, to access a bonanza of web information and self-guided tours. This summer, 20 new “story posts,” bringing the total to 42, afford a walking encyclopedia of information. They are affixed to granite bollards situated strategically on the route (GHWalk.org).

The posts are part of the Gloucester HarborWalk, a free, multimile, historic, civic and artistic public-access walkway that zigzags in and out of historic locales, piers, plazas, docks and parks. Call it stealth wayfinding, since it affords an intimate view of the harborfront, giving access to the town’s history — and the water itself — without disturbing the working port, or cutesifying it.

Given Cape Ann’s relationship with artists, local paintings are just about everywhere, including restaurants such as Latitude 43, a six-year-old seaside cynosure that has 400 seats, including its outdoor deck, as well as a frenzied two-chef sushi pit. Rotating painting exhibitions are always on the menu.

But the cape isn’t just focusing on the visual arts. The imposing Shalin Liu Performance Center (named after its chief benefactor, a Boston philanthropist) in sedate 174-year-old Rockport recently introduced its first professional theatrical presentation, “Women of Will.” The show was a departure from its typically music-heavy calendar, which has included the Juilliard String Quartet, Leon Fleisher, Arlo Guthrie, Branford and Ellis Marsalis and Suzanne Vega. Its programming seems to have clicked. The center originally attracted 7,000 people five years ago, but 29,000 attended last year at 120 performances, and it has become a year-round destination for music-lovers in Boston and in the surrounding states.

Travelers aren’t just going there, of course. Gloucester, with a population of 44,381, according to the census, had some 547,000 visitors last year, the city says. This is still a port where oilskin sou’westers are proudly worn, but the marine economy now represents a third of the city’s jobs, in comparison to 92 percent 150 years ago, according to the city.

On the HarborWalk jaunt, visitors learn that it is a transitional time for fishermen, trying to make a living in an era of declining fisheries, changing fish populations, increasingly stringent regulation and global price wars.

But the port, as any visitor can witness, is very much alive. Aside from the city’s busy whale-watch tours and fishing charters, there are harbor cruises in schooners of the sort immortalized in “Captains Courageous” by Rudyard Kipling. The 58-foot-long Ardelle is the newest, a contemporary replica of a classic wooden fishing schooner, called a pinky. Its template was the Maine, built in 1845, plying the waters until 1926 as a working vessel.

The construction of the Ardelle was part of an attempt “to keep thousand-year old nautical skills alive,” said Harold A. Burnham, the schooner’s builder and skipper. “If you don’t do something to keep these original traditions alive, they will be gone forever. They are disappearing in front of our eyes.”

And so, a working dockside museum, Maritime Gloucester, is celebrating the city’s heritage and explaining to visitors not only the mysterious ways of the industrial harbor but also the concept of a viable fishery. “We want to keep providing protein to the world, and we are trying to keep up the tradition of jobs on the water, be they in fishing, research or tourism,” said Tom Balf, executive director of Maritime Gloucester, which occupies a one-acre micro-campus at the center of Gloucester Harbor. It now has four new hull-shaped explanatory kiosks.

Mr. Balf hopes visitors will understand that “we are trying to build an economic model similar to the market for sustainable agriculture,” he added. “We are fighting hard here, to stay alive as a viable port.”

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