A red fishing shack at the end of a granite wharf in Rockport, Mass., is an unlikely celebrity. The picturesque old building, known as Motif No. 1, may be the most painted building in the United States — if not the world.
It has also appeared in movies, as an award-winning float, on magazine covers, on a postage stamp, in a 1960s Winston cigarette ad and as a Kentucky bourbon bottle.
Today, Rockport’s boosters shamelessly promote Motif No. 1 as a tourist attraction. Other coastal cities and towns shamelessly steal its image as their own.
Why ‘Motif No. 1?’ It’s a term used to deride artistic cliches. And Rockport attracted plenty of artists who seized on the cliche of a red fishing shack. Kristian Davies, in Artists of Cape Ann, tells the story:
Built around the time of the Civil War, its prominent position at the end of the pier made it a natural backdrop for artists painting harbor pictures. Finally in the early 1930s, while critiquing a group of students’ pictures, several of which featured the little red shack, Lester Hornby, using a term often employed by French students to describe frequently painted sites, exclaimed, “What – Motif No. 1 again!” His fateful words stuck and since then the little red shack has been referred to as “Motif No. 1.”
And for the past six decades, Rockport held a festival called Motif No. 1 Day. In 2020, organizers had to cancel the physical event because of the pandemic. They did, however, put on a virtual event.
History of Motif No. 1
The shack was originally built circa 1884-85, according to L.M. Vincent in In Search of Motif No. 1: The History of a Fish Shack. Today’s Motif (or “Motive,” as the locals call it) is actually a replica. Rockport rebuilt it after the Blizzard of ’78 destroyed the first one.
Motif No. 1 was first used for storing gear and fish. In the 1890s, the U.S. Naval fleet began to summer in Sandy Bay. The great battleships sent out launches to bring tourists to the ships. Visits by the ‘Great Fleets’ became a premier summer event on the North Shore. Advertisements in Boston suggested people rendezvous next to the ‘fish shack on the rocks’ to catch a launch to the ships, according to Leslie D. Bartlett in a 1998 Gloucester Times column.
For decades Motif No. 1 ‘settled into a peaceful coexistence’ with fishermen and tourists, even after the naval fleet stopped visiting in the 1930s, wrote Bartlett. It continued to attract plein air painters. Finally, the artist John Buckley bought the shack in the 1930s to use as his studio.
Then in 1933, the little fish shack became the toast of the Chicago’s World Fair. The Rockport Legionnaires decided to build a replica float of the Motif for the American Legion’s convention in Chicago. The convention happened to coincide with the World’s Fair.
Enthusiasm for the project spread beyond the Legionnaires to the townspeople and the Rockport Art Association. They all worked on building a 27-foot float into an elaborate tableau. Not only did it include a scale model of the shack, but reflecting drop cloths gave the illusion of water on which half-boat sideboards sailed. Barrels and nets were made to scale by hand.
The float was then driven to Chicago over three days on an old bus chassis. At night it stopped, illuminated by floodlights, and brochures about Rockport were distributed to passersby. Finally in Chicago, the float parked at Navy Pier where thousands came to take pictures of it.
Motif No. 1 took first place in the Legion parade’s historic fleet competition. It also inspired a standing ovation at Soldier Field. The Motif float then returned to another parade in Rockport, where 4,500 people welcomed it as a conquering hero. (You can buy a DVD called The Little Fish Shack that Charmed Chicago World’s Fair 1933.)
A Sore Red Thumb
You can see Motif No. 1 from just about everywhere on Rockport Harbor. As a result, one critic said it “sticks out like a sore red thumb.”
It got the formula for its trademark weathered red look in 1942 from a well-known artist, Aldro Hibbard. He liked to paint outdoors in winter and started the Rockport Summer School of Painting. According to Bartlett,
Hibbard organized Rockport artists to paint the old fish house, four gallons of crank case oil were added to a red paint mixture to prevent glare, and he warned them to “keep away from that barn red.”
Then in 1945, the Town of Rockport bought the Motif as a monument to Rockport citizens who had served in the military.
The Rockport Board of Trade subsequently launched The Rockport Anchor, an annual publication promoting Rockport history and events to tourists. The Motif, of course, graced the cover. That year Rockport held the first “Motif No. 1 Day,” a late May festival to encourage tourism. Since then, the festival attracted crowds of tourists every year. During the COVID-19 pandemic, however, the annual festival didn’t happen.
Because of its iconic look, other locations began to misappropriate Motif No. 1’s image. The little red shack appeared in advertisements for towns in Connecticut, Rhode Island, Cape Cod, and for Virginia Beach and Portland, Maine.
On April 4, 2002, Motif No. 1 graced a postage stamp as part of the postal service’s “Greetings from America” series. The postal service commissioned artists to create stamps with a vintage look similar to 1940s postcards. So artists designed stamps featuring Motif No. 1 and Mount Greylock, representing eastern and western Massachusetts.
Motif No. 1 also appeared in at least two movies. The dentist’s office in Finding Nemo has a picture of Motif Number 1 hanging on the wall, a tribute by director Andrew Stanton to his hometown of Rockport.
Another film, Disney’s The Proposal, used Rockport Harbor to represent Sitka, Alaska. The Motif was slightly altered with a large “SITKA” sign.
Motif No. 1 has now entered the Internet Age now, inspiring snarky comments on Yelp:
Um, come on Rockport chamber of commerce. There is no way that this little red fisheman’s shack is really the most painted building in America.
But alas, no one can PROVE it isn’t true… so therefore it must be! Every place needs a “most famous” icon.
Well the original “Motif” was destroyed in the blizzard of 78. The one that stands now is a replica. I guess this is ok, but I found it oddly cheap and disappointing.
Then I took a photo of it! Some part of me must have bought into the myth of the mystique.
This story was updated in 2023. Image of Motif No. 1 in July 2009 By J. Ash Bowie – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7280145. Motif No. 1 surrounded by boats, By John Phelan – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19484606.