There’s more to Rockport than its most famous building


By David Wilkening, Contributing Writer

The weathered-looking red fishing shack in Rockport known as “Motif No. 1” has captured the imagination of countless artists. Photo/Richard Correale
The weathered-looking red fishing shack in Rockport known as “Motif No. 1” has captured the imagination of countless artists.
Photo/Richard Correale

ROCKPORT – Artists paint it. Photographers shoot a picture. Everyone else just enjoys a look at it.

It’s “Motif No. 1,” Rockport’s famous symbol. The weathered-looking red shack is often referred to as the “most painted and photographed building in America.”

Beating the crowds

It’s not the only reason for visiting the town, located about 37 miles from Boston. But the off-season colder months may be as good a time as any for the trip here.

“It’s a quieter time with no crowds. The pace is a little bit slower,” said Peter Webber, senior vice president of the Greater Cape Ann Chamber of Commerce.

Located at the tip of the Cape Ann peninsula, the seaside village of Rockport is known in the summer for its beaches and water activities. The city that was named for its “rocky” surroundings was best known in its earlier days as one of the nation’s leading suppliers of granite―as seen by its remaining ruins of old quarries.

In modern times, Motif No. 1 has appeared in popular movies like “Finding Nemo,” as an award-winning parade float, on magazine covers, on a postage stamp, in a 1960s Winston cigarette ad and on a Kentucky bourbon bottle. It has also been featured in advertisements for many New England tourist destinations.

How the shack became a star

Erected in the 1880s as a utilitarian shed, the 1,008-square-foot wooden structure served as a simple storage space for lobstermen and fishermen. On the first floor, seafarers stocked their bait, lines, and other supplies, and mended their nets. A fish broker’s office occupied the partial second story above.

But the mundane fishing shack had another destiny. 

It caught the eye of painters in the area’s burgeoning artists’ colony. They loved it mainly because of the way the natural light struck it. In the 1920s, it became a popular model. Too popular, in fact, much to the vexation of a local art teacher named Lester Hornby. After receiving one more painting of the shack, he replied:
“What? ‘Motif No. 1’ again!” Supposedly, the nickname stuck with the building ever since. 

Today, you probably won’t find a local shop that does not have some replica of the famous red shack.

The shack is not open to visitors. “But it’s very picturesque and it draws photographers and artists who appreciate the light off the water. They can look at it from different angles, and it’s a nice centerpiece for photos where you can see a number of vantage points around the harbor,” Webber said.

Other attractions

Other sights worth seeing include Halibut Point State Park, a former granite quarry that today is part of the Massachusetts state forest and parks system. It overlooks the Atlantic Ocean with stunning views. On a clear day, visitors can see Mount Agamenticus, located 40 miles away in Maine, and the Isles of Shoals off the coast of New Hampshire. If you’re ambitious enough to climb the 60-foot renovated World War II fire tower, the reward is a panoramic view. Both self-guided and group tours are offered at the park, open every day.

For older visitors, the park’s trails are often flat and easily walkable. But the bird life is the major reason for a visit―particularly during certain times.

“One thing we’re promoting in the colder months is birding. Birders are calling the area one of the most important anywhere,” Webber said.

Migrant loons, grebes, and diving ducks can be seen year-round. But some species are only seen in the winter here, such as purple sandpipers and wintering harlequin ducks.

Walking the streets of the town is an attraction in itself, Webber said. “People who like history have a lot of homes to see. Many of them are from the 16th and 17th century. You can stroll around town and see classic a New England community in the private homes.”

And don’t miss the Rockport Art Association and Museum at 12 Main St.

The museum celebrated its 100th birthday last year. It sponsors programs year-round. It’s housed in two historical buildings with seven art galleries, featuring mainly American art. You should be able to buy a “Motif No. 1” reminder at the Old Tavern Gift Shop.

For the musically inclined, Rockport Music opened the Shalin Liu Performance Center in 2010. It’s since become known for its spectacular views and superb acoustics. The center hosts the Rockport Jazz Festival, as well as a diverse series of classical, jazz, folk, and pop music concerts.

As for that little red shack being the most photographed and painted, some skeptics question it. Webber won’t make that claim. “Well, maybe at least in New England,” he said.



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