Gloucester Massachusetts: America’s Oldest Seaport Reconnects to its Roots
By Elayne Badrigian
For anyone who has never visited Gloucester, Massachusetts, the image they often associate it with most is actor George Clooney’s handsome face. Indeed, the actor helped make the small fishing town on the Bay State’s rocky coast famous for both its long time fishing tradition and tragedy.
The Bass Rocks Ocean Inn has numerous copies of the Clooney movie, “The Perfect Storm,” available for its guests. “That’s always a popular one for our guests, so we keep plenty of those in the collection,” said Ellen, an innkeeper at the oceanfront hotel. But Gloucester is much more than just George Clooney’s pretty face.
Each June, the Italian-American fishing community in the town of 29,000 residents gathers to celebrate St. Peter, the patron saint of fishermen. On a dreary Friday night, the rain does little to deter the crowds from participating in the Fiesta’s opening ceremony.
First settled by the British in 1623, in the early years of the 20th century, many Italian families moved to Gloucester, attracted to the fishing port because they had been fishermen in their native Sicily. When they arrived, they brought many customs with them, including the commemoration of St. Peter.
Today, men and women of the older generations follow the saint as he is carried down the street, while teenagers get their thrills from the carnival rides.
As the statue makes its way to the altar, children release red, white and blue confetti into the air. Music is played on the bandstand every night of the Fiesta, which lasts for four days. An open-air mass is conducted on Sunday morning. Salvatore Favazza purchased the statue of St. Peter and brought it from Italy 84 years ago.
The first festival took place in front of a grocery store. Kathy Roberts, his great-granddaughter, mentions that the festival began as a small event near the beach where he lived.
Kathy has lived in Gloucester all her life. Her brother, Mike Linquata, who lives in Northridge, California, comes back for the festival almost every year. “All my sisters still live here and my kids love to come back.”
Vendors selling food from their respective Italian restaurants line the street, offering fiesta-goers pizza, pastries and other tempting treats. The weekend’s festivities include the Greasy Pole contest, where soon-to-be slippery young men run across a grease-covered pole above Gloucester Harbor with the intent of capturing a flag. Another event is the Seine Boat Race. Strength and vigor are tested in this mile-long feat.
Cookies and Cake
Less than five miles outside of the center of town is the Bass Rocks Inn, located along the picturesque Atlantic Road. At night, the lobby smells of freshly baked cookies, which are in a basket next to the brochures.
Ellen issues a friendly warning that they disappear fast, and they sure do. Guests sit in comfortable couches in the adjoining room and enjoy coffee and tea with the tasty morsels.
Every morning, an “upscale” continental breakfast of homemade muffins and scones, fresh fruit, bagels, and an assortment of cereals and oatmeal are served. In the sunroom, tables for two and four are arranged along the window, garnering a view of the ocean.
Across the street from the hotel is a sidewalk that extends in both directions, providing a view of the spectacular homes that sit just above the rocky coastline. Bright pink wildflowers that bloom along the sidewalk are juxtaposed by the choppy, and often, ferocious sea.
Tracy Muller is the owner of the hotel and granddaughter of former proprietors of the inn. Prominent builder and hotelier George O. Stacy built the house in 1897 for his new wife. Dubbed the “Wedding Cake House” because of its shape and color, the couple never lived there. Mrs. Stacy refused to live in the house because she felt it isolated her from her friends, so her husband built her a home downtown.
Stacy is also responsible for funding the building of “the Man at the Wheel” Fisherman’s Memorial Statue in 1925. Standing eight feet tall, the bronze statue is positioned so that the fisherman is looking out over Gloucester Harbor. Over the years, the statue has become a symbol of the city and the subject of many tourists’ photographs.
The “Wedding Cake House” is on the National Historic Register, which means it is a cultural resource worthy of preservation. Overlooking Gloucester Harbor is another home of historical significance. Beauport, the Sleeper-McCann House, a National Historic Landmark, was the summer home of Henry Davis Sleeper, an antique collector who is also considered America’s first professional interior decorator.
Magic, Mystery and Romance
Sleeper began building Beauport in 1907, eventually expanding the house to more than 40 rooms. “Every room has a little touch of magic in it,” said tour guide Clara Reed. Each room has a different historical and literary theme.
Sleeper was a fan of George Washington, and Clara encourages visitors to look for the 17 representations of the president throughout the house, some easier to find than others. In a room dedicated to Lord Byron, Sleeper cut slots in the wall to accommodate the bedposts; he often designed rooms around a single object he had collected.
As visitors move throughout the house, “the rooms start to get more creative and dramatic,” said Clara. Sleeper has filled the rooms with period furniture, colorful glassware, books (their covers often the same shade as the fabric, wallpaper, and paint) and vibrant ceramics.
Many rooms have a touch of what Clara referred to as “whimsy.” This includes mirrors behind doors, secret passages, and artifacts made of tiger maple, Sleeper’s favorite wood. In the maid’s bedroom, a rolling pin made of the rare wood rests on a cabinet.
On Halloween, “Sleeper would go upstairs and watch his company arrive through the window of another room,” said Clara. “He would then dress in his costume and greet them after emerging through a secret passage.” Visitors to the home included Isabella Stewart Gardner, a renowned collector in her own right.
Clara said, “Mr. Sleeper and his guests had wonderful times together. They were carefree, bright and incredibly creative.” She shows old photographs of guests like A. Piatt Andrew, a Harvard economist and according to Clara, the subject of Sleeper’s affections.
The Old with a Touch of New
Creativity takes a theatrical form in Gloucester with the Gloucester Stage Company, which was co-founded in 1979 by award-winning playwright Israel Horovitz. The critically acclaimed company, according to Heidi Dallin, media and education director, “is a safe harbor for new playwrights and offers American classics.”
Plays based in Gloucester and on the lives of its residents are always popular, said Heidi. One written by Horovitz went on to become a Broadway hit—Park Your Car in Harvard Yard. Tonight’s play is Living Together, the second play in Alan Ayckbourn’s The Norman Conquests trilogy.
The ensemble features Academy Award nominee and Gloucester resident, Lindsay Crouse. The first play takes place in the dining room while Living Together features family antics in the living room and reunites the director and cast from the first play.
The Gloucester Stage Company is looking to enhance the quality of its facility to match that of its actors and performances. “When you walk in, you can see that it’s a very intimate space and that’s what we want to keep,” said General Manager J. Andrew Burgreen. Renovations will capitalize on the beautiful view of Smith Cove.
To capitalize on the seaport’s local fare, have a bite at The Rudder. Located on Rocky Neck in America’s oldest working art colony, the oceanfront restaurant is in its 57th year of business. The building was originally a fish-packing establishment until the early 1900s when it was turned into artists’ studios where many famous painters lived.
The Rudder is one of just a handful of restaurants in Gloucester where guests can arrive by boat. It is currently owned by the Attaya family. Owner Gino suggests, “sticking around for the sunset. The hills across from the restaurant and the water glow.” Share a plate of the lobster cakes, a favorite among locals, and enjoy the view.
For some relief from the heat, grab an iced coffee or a refreshing glass of tasty tea at Pleasant Street Tea Company. Located in Gloucester’s historic business district, the company has over 100 varieties of teas from around the world. In addition, they serve organic coffee and espresso drinks, smoothies, juices, fresh lemonade and a unique selection of sandwiches and wraps. Sip and surf the web with Pleasant Street Tea Company’s free internet access.
Gloucester has many faces, from the Italian-American fishing heritage and the traditional New England homes and seascapes to the more modern and ever-changing character of the art colony. Tracy reminds visitors that Gloucester, at its heart, is a small town and its residents are connected to one another’s history.
Elayne Badrigian is a former editorial assistant for GoNOMAD.com. She now works as a trainer at Apple Corp in Boston.