Motif No. 1 stands proudly on its granite pier.Photo Credit : Bethany Bourgault
Motif No. 1, the famous icon of Rockport, Massachusetts, is ready for its close-up. Artists, both experienced and novice, appreciate its lines and charm, while sightseers flock to photograph it every day. It’s the most painted building in the world, and it’s right here in New England.
To the untrained eye, Motif No. 1 looks like a simple fishing shack. That’s what it once was, after all. Built in the mid-1840s, it housed fishermen’s supplies and daily catches for years. When the U.S. Naval Fleet docked in Rockport, locals used the shack as a place for meeting and watching ship launches. It became an artist’s studio in the 1930s, before finally serving as a city-owned monument to the area’s veterans.
As Rockport gained notoriety as an artists’ haven, painters flocked to the town to capture the true-blue New England scenes. One such painter, Lester Hornby, loved the area and taught painting classes in the summer. He would send his students out to paint whatever scenes caught their eyes, and he noticed a trend in the work he got back. His students seemed to favor the little red building over anything else on Rockport’s seaside landscape. It was the quintessential icon of a New England fishing town, right down to the ever-so-slightly weathered paint. It was becoming a “motif” — a French term for a theme within a work of art that often repeats itself. Legend has it that upon being presented with yet another rendition of the shack, Hornby exclaimed “What? Motif No. 1 again!” and we’ve been calling it that ever since.
In the years since, Motif No. 1 has earned a celebrity status seemingly disproportionate with its lack of grandeur. A float modeled after it won first place in the American Legion parade held during the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. It makes a guest appearance in the movie, Finding Nemo. It has its own festival, celebrating Rockport’s arts and supporting local schools. It has been featured on a postage stamp, cigarette ad, and bourbon bottle. When it was destroyed by the blizzard of 1978, the town of Rockport recognized its significance and built a near-exact replica.
Next time you’re in Rockport, MA, be sure to check out this little building. It won’t take long (unless you’re painting it) and it’ll surely be worth it. You’ll be able to say that you’ve seen the most painted building in the world, and, like many before you, you may find that your heart is captured by the icon of quintessential New England.
Have you ever seen, photographed, or drawn Motif No. 1?
This post was first published in 2016 and has been updated.