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Architectural Monographs: Essex, a Town Settled by Shipbuilders

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Like nearly any town in America, the village of Essex, located 26 miles north of Boston on the river of the same name, has changed dramatically since the early days of its founding. In 1920, the author of this issue of the historic White Pine Series of Architectural Monographs lamented the ways in which the town had lost its initial sea-flavored character, though at the time, those changes mostly consisted of a misguided Greek Revival and the addition of a couple bridges on the river.

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Author H. Van Buren Magonigle would likely be shocked to see Essex as it stands today – a still-charming village, no doubt, but one that has inevitably evolved to fit 21st century life. Essex was founded by shipbuilders in 1634, and was the center of a prosperous shipbuilding trade until the early part of the 20th century. Today, the main sources of income for the town are the shellfish industry and tourism.

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Magonigle’s account of historic Essex architecture, written just at the time when the shipbuilding industry had declined, is a colorful and poetic read.

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“There are no black wharves now if ever there were, nor slips, and the sea tides barely reach it; the last Spanish whiskered who swaggered through her streets has long since been gathered, beard and all, to his fathers – but as by the perfume of a memory Essex is haunted still by ‘the beauty and mystery of the ships and the magic of the sea,'” he writes.


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