April 10, 2003


Jessica Benson
Staff Writer

Force behind city's renewal dies

NEWBURYPORT - When Robert Wilkins was first offered a position on the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority he refused.

It was only after the mayor at the time, George Lawler, promised not to interfere with the joy that Wilkins reconsidered.

"He didn't want to be in a position where he thought someone would use him," explained Lawler, still sounding surprised that his offer was refused all these years ago.

Eventually named chairman of the NRA, Wilkins went on to become a driving force in keeping downtown Newburyport from falling victim to the bulldozer, and is credited with helping the city become the success it is today.

Wilkins died yesterday at the age of 96, prompting many of those who worked with him to remember with fondness the contributions he made in the city.

"You can't overemphasize his contributions," said Hugh Doyle, the former attorney for the NRA. "He was one of the truly outstanding people in the history of the redevelopment of downtown."

Wilkins was a prominent Boston doctor who graduated first in his class from Harvard Medical School.

Though he was often busy researching cardiovascular diseases and writing medical articles, he also made time for the city of Newburyport, his home since 1943.

"He made the time," Matthews (former Mayor Byron Matthews) said. "Bob was that type of person. He was committed."

Wilkins first became involved in the redevelopment of downtown Newburyport when he wrote a letter to the newspaper urging reconsideration for plans to demolish 20 acres of the city's historic buildings. The original plan called for the replacement of older buildings with a mall and parking lot.

Up until that point, the only redevelopment projects the federal government would pay for were those involved demolition and construction of new buildings.

"At that time, urban renewal was the bulldozer," said Lawler, mayor of Newburyport from 1964 to 1967. Byron Matthews, the mayor who succeeded Lawler, said he remembered a speech Wilkins gave at the YWCA around that time, just as the idea of saving Newburyport's historic buildings started to take root.

"He said 'one man's junk is another man's treasure,'" Matthews said. "I can remember him saying that like it was yesterday."

Once he joined the NRA, Wilkins brought in Bill Perry, a renowned architect with roots in Newburyport. Together, Wilkins, Perry and Lawler toured the buildings slated for demolition, trying to find a way to bring them up to code while preserving the historic facades.

Working with the NRA, Perry developed a design for a restored Market Square. City leaders, including Wilkins, used the design to convince the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development to try something new --- paying for a restoration project instead of demolition.

Newburyport became the first such federally-funded project, and was followed by similar efforts in Salem, Portsmouth, N.H. and Boston.

"Newburyport was a pioneer. We proved that the older buildings don't have to be torn down all the time," Matthews said, adding that Wilkins, too was a "pioneer."

Today, residents and visitors alike reap the benefits of the renewal project. Those who helped bring the project to like say Wilkins deserves much of the credit for that.

"Mr. Wilkins was a big part of that," Matthews said. "He was one of the more instrumental forces."

"Through most of his dealings with Wilkins centered around their work together on the renewal project, Matthews had known Wilkins before that. Wilkins, his wife Margaret, and his three children would often do business in Matthews' grocery store.

Wilkins was soft-spoken, down-to-earth, and always a gentleman, said those who knew him.

Matthews and others who worked with Wilkins hadn't seen him in a while. In recent years, Wilkins' health suffered, and he didn't go out of the house as much after his wife did three years ago.

But those who knew him are still saddened by his passing.

"We certainly sympathize with his family," Matthews said. "He'll be missed."


(This article replicated online with permission of the Newburyport Daily News, an Eagle Tribune Newspaper.)
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