boston.com your connection to The Boston Globe
NEWBURYPORT

Collaboration will restore historic 'Mint'

Legacy of early Newburyport inventor will be showcased in new museum

In 1808, Newburyport inventor Jacob Perkins, fresh from pioneering a ground-breaking engraving technique, constructed a building with his brother, Abraham, to house their new paper currency printing business.

Two centuries later, a historical group is poised to restore the building to its original condition and convert it to a museum recalling the creative talents of Perkins, and the evolution of currency printing in early America.

The project cleared its last major hurdle last month when the city's Zoning Board of Appeals granted the group, the Historical Society of Old Newbury, needed approvals.

The society, which agreed to buy the Fruit Street building from attorney James Lagoulis for $200,000, is now set to close on the purchase later this month.

"There are an awful lot of very pleased folks," said David Mack, co president of the society.

"It's been kind of a hard slog. But I think we are well on our way to being able to take this project forward. We hope within two years or so to add the building as an operat ing museum," he said.

Commonly referred to as the "Mint Building" -- a misnomer because it was paper currency, not coins, that it produced -- the structure is adjacent to the Caleb Cushing House Museum, the Federalist building that serves as the society's headquarters and features rooms furnished in the style of the early to mid-1800 s.

Plans call for the staff of the Cushing House Museum to run the new museum, which like the Cushing would be open seasonally and at other times by appointment.

Born in 1766, Jacob Perkins was a descendant of the 17th - century settlers who first came to Newbury, which then encompassed what is today Newbury, Newburyport, and West Newbury, according to the society's curator, Jay S. Williamson.

At age 12, Perkins apprenticed with a goldsmith. Later he was employed to make dies for the production of the copper coin used in Massachusetts.

In 1795, he invented a machine for manufacturing nails. He followed that in 1804 with the discovery of a new technique for making steel engraving plates for printing currency. The discovery was significant because it allowed for more detail to be included on the paper notes, which made them less susceptible to counterfeiting.

"Jacob Perkins is important because during this period, where banks had their own currencies, the stability of those banks was only as good as the currency they used," Williamson said.

At first, Perkins and his brother sold the plates to banks. But after opening the Mint Building, they began to print the currency. The Mint Building, where the printing took place, is believed to have been part of a complex whose other buildings are now gone. An adjacent house where Abraham Perkins lived still stands and is today maintained as a rental property by Lagoulis.

Jacob Perkins moved to Philadelphia in 1816, and in 1819 went to London to introduce his printing plates. He continued to come up with new inventions, including devising modifications to the steam engine, yet died penniless in 1849.

"He never really cared to see his inventions reach the apex of their commercial success," Williamson said. "He was always on to the next project."

Williamson said period newspaper accounts indicate that by 1822, the Mint Building had ceased to print currency, but was being used to print book illustrations and to reproduce pictures and portraits.

Following Abraham Perkins' death in 1839, the building was sold. Williamson said it is not known how the building was used for the next century or so. Starting in about the 1940 s, it housed an oil furnace repair shop, and later an auto body shop.

Lagoulis purchased the building and the adjacent house in about 1972. Since then, the Mint Building has been used only for storage and occasional parking.

"As time went on, the building lapsed into disrepair," Lagoulis said . "I felt that the building was worth saving."

He decided to try to cover at least part of the cost of fixing the building by seeking zoning relief from the zoning board to convert it into a residential unit.

But neighbors objected to his plan because of the increased density it involved, and Lagoulis ultimately withdrew the proposal several years ago.

The Historical Society of Old Newbury, seeing an opportunity to preserve the building and turn it into a museum, then began discussions with Lagoulis that eventually led to the purchase and sale.

A $200,000 grant from the Newburyport Five Cents Savings Bank is funding the entire purchase cost, while $184,500 appropriated by the city from its Community Preservation Fund will pay for the renovations, due to begin soon after the closing.

"I think it's the best solution for all parties," Lagoulis said of the sale. "The city has been able to preserve a nice piece of its history, the society is happy to have the addition to its museum, and I'm satisfied we did all we could to save the building."

Mack said the new museum would display artifacts from Jacob Perkins' s life, some of which it has already accumulated over the years, and from the early currency printing industry.

He said the museum would also help provide a window into Newburyport's history .

"During the period the printing plant was in operation, it functioned as a unique industrial aspect of Newburyport," he said. "How it impacted the city and the daily lives of people who worked there and around it" will be part of the story the museum tells.

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES