Manchester-by-the-Sea has lit up the big screen in eight Hollywood films, including screenwriter Kenneth Lonergan’s recent drama, Manchester by the Sea, starring Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams. It’s not surprising. This snug seaside town is as picturesque as it is livable. Admittedly, I’m biased, having grown up there. But Manchester-by-the-Sea has this way of tugging at your heartstrings. It’s small without being provincial, filled with interesting people, and steeped in history and tradition, yet also forward thinking and unassuming in many ways. Add gorgeous beaches, fun shops, and tasty places to eat, along with pretty parks, harbor views, and handsome architecture, and it’s no wonder generations of families have lived there.
“Both my husband and I grew up in Manchester,” says Julie Smith, a third-generation resident whose husband’s commercial fishing boat, the Claudia Marie (named after the couple’s daughter, who died at 13 months), starred in the Lonergan film. “I love how we have a town center and everybody knows your name. My family jokes that you can’t just go to Crosby’s [Marketplace] for a quick errand. You have to allow at least half an hour because you run into so many people!”
Settled in 1636 and originally named Jeffrey’s Creek, the town abounded with natural resources. My father, Gordon Abbott Jr., a third-generation resident, wrote in his book, Jeffrey’s Creek: A Story of People, Places, and Events in the Town That Came to Be Known as Manchester-by-the-Sea, that the region had plenty of timber to burn as fuel and build homes and ships. It had good land for grazing and planting, and plenty of wild game, fish, and shellfish to eat.
In 1645 the town officially changed its name to Manchester and became populated with dozens of merchant sea captains, who traded with Europe and the Far East. From the 1820s to the Civil War, Manchester became famous for furniture making. However, when the Union Navy blocked civil ports, the cabinetmakers went out of business.
But ever industrious, Manchester’s residents cashed in on the town’s natural assets, mainly cool breezes and ocean views, which were wildly enticing to the wealthy urban elite from sweltering cities like Boston, who had no air conditioning. Arriving in droves, they began buying land upon which to build lavish mansions (called “summer cottages”) along the cooling waterfront. In 1879 actor Junius Brutus Booth, the older brother of the man who shot and killed President Abraham Lincoln, built Masconomo House, an opulent three-and-a-half-story hotel overlooking Singing Beach. With 106 rooms, tennis courts, bowling allies, billiard rooms, and a fancy dining hall large enough to serve 300 guests, the hotel helped usher in Manchester’s Gilded Age.
By the early 1900s, the town was attracting celebrities and dignitaries, including President William Howard Taft (and later President Woodrow Wilson and President Theodore Roosevelt), inventor Alexander Graham Bell, and eleven foreign ambassadors, who moved their embassies to Manchester in the summer of 1904. The locals and defunct cabinetmakers now entered the service sector, becoming the home builders, as well as gardeners, chauffeurs, butlers, and cooks, for this new moneyed set. The residents also provided goods and services through their grocery stores, horse and carriage rental shops, apothecaries, and other businesses.
Yet, despite its glamorous past, Manchester-by-the-Sea never lost its small-town charm. In fact, to highlight its uniqueness, in 1990 Manchester was legally renamed Manchester-by-the-Sea.
“It’s a comfortable and comforting town,” says Sue Thorne, a resident for nearly 60 years, who has served on numerous town committees. “The downtown common, with the town hall and First Parish Church, has a quaintness to it.” Then, of course, there is Singing Beach, she adds, along with the excellent school system (among the top in the state).
The town’s quality school system has begun attracting lots of young families, like Matthew Gaudet and his wife, who sold their home and restaurant in Cambridge to find a more balanced life in Manchester-by-the-Sea. “A huge draw for us was the schools,” says Gaudet, “and the other was that my wife—Miranda Gaudet (formerly Silverman)—is from Manchester.” Last spring, Matthew Gaudet opened SuperFine, a small, casual eatery serving dishes like charred kale salad, whiskey-glazed ribs, and lamb sausage pizza. As for housing, Gaudet and his wife live in her childhood home, with a new wing for his mother-in-law.
Beyond Superfine, the town has several good places to eat, including The Landing at 7-Central, a regular hangout for Lonergan’s movie cast and crew. For shopping, locals and visitors love The Stock Exchange, a consignment shop selling clothing, jewelry, home goods, antiques, and furniture. Another popular spot is Mahri, filled with handcrafted jewelry (made by the shop’s owner), artsy clothes, and elegant home goods.
For overnight accommodations, the town has just one spot, the Old Corner Inn. Built in 1865, it was formerly the Danish summer embassy. All nine rooms have simple, comfortable furnishings, many with four-poster beds, maple floors, and ball-and-claw-footed bath tubs. But unlike previous eras, the entire property has air conditioning.