Timothy Dexter House in Newburyport, Massachusetts

Built in 1771, the Timothy Dexter House, which is also known as the Jackson-Dexter House, is a historic Federal-style mansion at 201 High Street in Newburyport, Mass.

The house is a three-story building with a hipped roof and small square windows in the uppermost floor.

The house also features quoins (masonry blocks on the corners of the building), a Doric cornice and an entrance portico supported by rusticated columns.

Although best known for being the home of local eccentric businessman Lord Timothy Dexter in the early 18th century, the home was originally built for local merchant Jonathan Jackson.

Jackson, who owned a business that imported British goods, suffered financial losses after the Revolutionary War and sold the house in 1795 to Captain Thomas Thomas.

Lord Timothy Dexter’s Place at Newburyport, illustration published in The New England Magazine circa 1896

Thomas died shortly after purchasing the house and, in 1798, the house was sold to Timothy Dexter, who had made a small fortune buying and selling depreciated currency after the Revolutionary War.

After purchasing the house, Dexter placed minarets and gilt balls on the roof and added a cupola to the house upon which he placed a statue of a large gold eagle on the roof. By the front door, Dexter placed four statues of roaring lions to guard the entrance.

In the garden, Dexter built wooden arches and rows of about 40 to 50, 15-foot tall columns topped with wooden life-size statues of famous individuals carved by Joseph Wilson of Strong Street.

Some of the individuals represented by the statues included John Adams, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, a Native American chieftain, William Pitt, General Morgan, the Goddess of Fame, Louis XVI, John Jay, the King of Russia, Solomon, Venus, the Governor of New Hampshire as well as a statue of Timothy Dexter himself which was inscribed with the words:

“I am the first in the East, the first in the West, and the greatest philosopher in the known world.”

Dexter also built a tomb in the garden and made plans to be buried there. He even commissioned a mahogany coffin with silver handles for himself, which he kept on display in the house.

Dexter decorated the interior of the house with “flamboyant” furniture, drapes and objects of art imported from France.

The book Famous Colonial Houses describes what the house looked like when Dexter lived there:

“He took a square colonial house of straight and dignified proportions, polished it with bright paint, and set gilt balls and railings and minarets upon its roof, till from the sea it looked like Christmas gone mad” (Hollister 91.)

The book Lord Timothy Dexter of Newburyport, Massachusetts said the house looked more “like a weird Versailles in the midst of a staid and godly New England seaport town” (Marquand 6.)

In an autobiographical book that Dexter wrote in 1802, A Pickle for the Knowing Ones, Dexter described his house in a poem, stating:

“His house is filled with sweet perfumes,

Rich furniture doth fill his rooms;

Inside and out it is adorn’d,

And on the top an eagle’s form’d,

His house is white and trimmed with green,

For many miles it may be seen;

It shines as bright as any star,

The fame of it has spread afar” (Dexter 30.)

After Dexter died in 1806, an auction was held on May 12, 1807, during which the household furniture, gilt balls and many of the statues from the garden were sold off.

Dexter’s widow, Elizabeth Dexter, died a few years later, on July 3, 1809, and the house was rented out shortly after to Thomas and Stephen Marshall who turned it into an inn (Currier 576.)

Dexter Mansion, rear view, photo published in The New England Magazine circa 1896

The house was later leased to Hannah Toppan Marshall who occupied it as a residence and a boarding house.

On September 23, 1815, the “Great September Gale” hurricane toppled most of the remaining wooden statues from the house and the surviving ones were sold at auction.

When Timothy Dexter’s daughter, Nancy Dexter, separated from her husband, she made an arrangement with the Marshall family that they would provide her with lodging in the Dexter house for the remainder of her life, reportedly due to her “impaired intellect” and her alleged drinking problem.

When Nancy Dexter died on September 30, 1851, the house passed down to her daughter Mary Ann (Bishop) Clark.

On February 2, 1852, Mary Ann Clark sold the house to Dr. Elbridge S. Kelley for $7,000. Kelley and his family lived in the house for 20 years and improved the grounds greatly by planting trees and shrubbery on the property.

Dr. Kelley even served as mayor of Newburyport from 1871 to 1872 while living at the house.

On April 30, 1874, Dr. Kelley sold the house to George H. Corliss of Rhode Island, who was the inventor of the Corliss Steam Engine. When Corliss died in 1888, the house passed to his widow Emily A. Corliss.

Lord Dexter’s mansion, Newburyport, Ma, photo published in The New England Magazine circa 1896

In 1897, Emily A. Corliss sold the house to Mary B. (Alexander) Johnson. Johnson owned it until 1902 when she sold it to Nathaniel G. Pierce. In 1909, the house was briefly owned by George P. Sargent.

On March 18, 1909, Katherine Tingley, the leader of an esoteric religious and occult movement called theosophy, purchased the Dexter House from Sargent and made plans to open a theosophist school there but after experiencing a number of burglaries and fires, she sold the house in 1915.

The house went up for sale again in the late 1960s and it changed hands two more times after that until Newburyport native William Quill purchased the house for $200,000 in 1984 with plans to restore it.

On August 15, 1988, while nearing completion of the restoration work, workers used a blow torch to burn off paint under the eaves which caused a fire that gutted the house.

Fortunately, the house was rebuilt to look exactly as it did before using the original blueprints preserved by the Preservation of New England Architecture (now known as Historic New England.)

Jackson Dexter House, photo published in Old Newburyport Houses circa 1912

In 2013, a pair of five-foot-long statues that once adorned the entrance of the house, which are titled “Peace” and “Plenty” and are believed to have been blown down during the 1815 hurricane, were auctioned off at an Amesbury auction house for somewhere between $40,000 and $60,000.

In addition, a number of arms and hands were saved from the damaged statues and are in the collection of the Historical Society of Old Newbury.

Fewer than half of the original 40 statues have survived and one of the statues, a statue of William Pitt, is actually on display at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C.

Sources:
Hale, Albert. Old Newburyport Houses. W.B. Clarke Company, 1912
Currier, John James. Ould Newbury: Historical and Biographical Sketches. Damrell and Upham, 1896.
Todd, William Cleaves. Timothy Dexter, Known ‘Lord Timothy Dexter,’ Of Newburyport, Mass. David Clapp & Son, 1886.
Marquand, John Phillips. Lord Timothy Dexter of Newburyport, Massachusetts. University of Wisconsin, 1925.
Hollister, Paul Merrick. Famous Colonial Houses. David McKay Company, 1921.
Keay, Fred E. “A Yankee Lord.” New England Magazine, New series, vol. 15, Old series, vol 21, Warren F. Kellogg, September 1896 February 1897.
Peace N Plenty Carvings Herald John McInnis Auction Aug. 12.” Live Auctioneers, liveauctioneers.com/news/top-news/collectiblesandpopculture/peace-n-plenty-carvings-herald-john-mcinnis-auction-aug-12/
Cerullo, Mac. “Carvings from Port’s landmark Dexter house to be auctioned Monday.” The Daily News, 10 Aug. 2013, newburyportnews.com/news/local_news/carvings-from-ports-landmark-dexter-house-to-be-auctioned-monday/article_c3cf352f-45b1-530e-82bf-deec65ee3611.html
History Happenings: March 18, 2019.” The Daily News, 17 Mar. 2019, newburyportnews.com/news/local_news/history-happenings-march-18-2019/article_c325a856-9a8a-5683-b7a0-a00de03f1534.html
Shea, Jack. “Man Who Faced Challenge Restoring Lord Timothy Dexter’s Mansion.” The Daily News, 30 Jan. 2018, newburyportnews.com/news/local_news/man-who-faced-challenge-restoring-lord-timothy-dexters-mansion/article_5e575973-b0c5-5f3f-a21c-7a82e6c9cd06.html
NWB.39 Jackson-Dexter House.” MACRIS, Massachusetts Cultural Resource Information System, mhc-macris.net/#!/details?mhcid=NWB.39

About Rebecca Beatrice Brooks

Rebecca Beatrice Brooks is the author and publisher of the History of Massachusetts Blog. Rebecca is a freelance journalist and history lover who got her start in journalism working for small-town newspapers in Massachusetts and New Hampshire after she graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a B.A. in journalism. Visit this site's About page to find out more about Rebecca.

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