, Gloucester, MA

December 11, 2009

Rockport's Motif No. 1 answers National Geographic question

By Jonathan L'Ecuyer

ROCKPORT — Known to students of art and art history as one of the most painted and photographed landmarks in New England, the iconic, dark red fish shack overlooking Rockport Harbor from the tip of Bradley Wharf is about to get even greater international exposure.

Motif No. 1, Rockport's trademark structure, will be featured on "Where in the World," a new, Web-based National Geographic series that aims to spotlight some "lesser known" places in the world and "show what makes them special to the tourists that visit, and more importantly," producers say, "to the people who live there."

Set to share the spotlight with Motif No. 1 in the special feature are the town's scenic beauty, colorful history and proud residents.

"It's not widely known, but to the people who have been there, it is a lasting memory," said National Geographic Television associate producer Jason Kurtis, whose two-man crew filmed the Motif and several other Rockport landmarks over two days in mid-November. "Yet, it is the people of Rockport that make the town what it is; from my experience there, it is a town of people full of pride in what they do and in the town they live in and have grown up in."

During his stay at the Emerson Inn by the Sea, Kurtis interviewed several local historians, including Les Bartlett, Buddy Woods and Paul St. Germain. The president of the Thacher Island Association, St. Germain gave Kurtis a tour of the town, which included a visit to the quarries at Halibut Point State Park and a stop on Eden Road for a perfect view of Thacher Island's iconic twin lighthouses.

"They loved the quarry and they wanted to go out to the island," St. Germain said.

In the time Kurtis and his crew were in town, they filmed Motif No. 1, the Rockport Art Association, the quarry at Halibut Point, the former Cape Ann Tool Co. building and various street scenes in the downtown area.

Crew members also set out aboard Robert "Gus" Contrino's boat at 5 a.m. on their second day in town to observe and film the duties of a lobsterman.

"We were lucky to get a clear day for the shoot and are looking forward to seeing the finished product," said Rockport Public Library Director and Rockport Rotary member Hope Coffman, who worked on behalf of the Rotary to coordinate Kurtis' visit.

The film is being edited and no firm release date has been set, Kurtis said.

However, Kurtis said yesterday he had his first screening of the program with senior producers earlier this week and a second screening is planned for Monday. He indicated the program could be posted to the Web site before the end of the month but is more likely to debut in January.

The National Geographic segment is another chapter in Motif No. 1's already illustrious history.

Every May since 1949, the town has celebrated the return of spring and the kickoff of "the season" with a festival named in honor of the famed fishing shack.

According to a story in John Cooley's "Rockport Sketch Book" — and recognized by Bartlett as the true origin of the name — during his summer seasons in Rockport, artist Lester Hornby noted that many pupils chose to paint the venerable, dilapidated shed on the edge of the Inner Harbor.

Its prominence and its simple but interesting proportions made it a natural model for sketches and paintings. One day when a student brought for criticism a pencil drawing of the structure, Hornby exclaimed, "What — Motif No. 1 again!"

To some in town, the building anchored on Bradley Wharf is not Motif No. 1 because the original Motif was destroyed in the infamous "Blizzard of 1978." A duplicate was built later that year.

The old fishing shack, which has been used to market Rockport for a century, was featured on the Massachusetts stamp in 2002 as part of the "Greetings from America" postage stamp set and also had a starring role in this summer's hit movie, "The Proposal," decorated with a sign touting the film's setting of Sitka, Alaska.

It also appeared in another Disney movie earlier this decade, directed by Rockport native Andrew Stanton.

A painting on the wall of a dentist's office in the film "Finding Nemo" — based on the office of Stanton's childhood dentist, Sam Ina of Manchester — features Motif No. 1. A lamp in the same scene includes Thacher Island's twin lights.

The building has served three purposes since the 1800s — as a storage shed for fishing gear, as a subject for painters and other artists, and as a marketing tool for Rockport and New England.

The connection to tourism dates to the 1890s when the U.S. Navy fleet began annual summer visits to Sandy Bay, according to Bartlett. Launches were dispatched to ferry tourists for a view; the tourists were advised to meet the launches at the old fishing shack on Bradley Wharf.

"Motif No. 1 is already an internationally known icon," said town Economic Development Committee Chairman Peter Beacham. "This recognition will add luster to its history, benefitting Rockport and Cape Ann."

Jonathan L'Ecuyer can be reached at 978-283-7000 x 3451 or


1840s: Motif built.

1890s to 1930s: Motif serves as a rendezvous for tourists coming to see the U.S. Navy fleet every summer.

1930s: Motif used as a studio by painter John Buckley.

1933: 27-foot replica of Motif used for float in the Chicago's World Fair.

1942: Aldro Hibbard organizes Rockport artists to paint the Motif.

1945: Painter John Buckley sells the Motif to the town, dedicating it "to the fishermen and artists of Rockport."

1949: Lester G. Hornby, a Rockport artist, founds Motif No. 1 Day as a celebration of Rockport's official start of the summer season.

1978: After Motif No. 1 collapses into the water during the great blizzard that February, a duplicate is built.

2002: Motif No. 1 appears on the Massachusetts stamp as part of the "Greetings from America" postage stamp set.

2003: Painting of the structure appears on the wall of a dentist's office in Rockport native Andrew Stanton's hit Disney film "Finding Nemo."

2006: Revitalization project to reconstruct roof, replace some side shingles and apply a new coat of paint.

2009: Featured prominently in this summer's hit Disney movie, "The Proposal," decorated with a sign touting the film's setting of Sitka, Alaska.

2009: Lighting installed to illuminate Motif No. 1 at night.

2009: Filmed for National Geographic's Web site as part of its new "Where in the World" series.