June 9, 2003


In the beginning; How Newburyport was saved from the 'federal bulldozer'

(Editor's note: The effort by the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority to stay alive via waterfront parking fees marks the final chapter of an effort of more than four decades. Bill Plante is undertaking what he calls "a sometime accounting of how we got here from there, the first of which was the gestation, birth, and flowering of Newburyport's restoration.")

That the current issue of parking fees has generated controversy is not surprising. Urban renewal of the downtown area was born in controversy that marked almost every major stage of its development. I was reminded of its beginning by the recent deaths of Mrs. Edmund (Ruth) Burke and Dr. Robert W. Wilkins, both of whom played defining roles in saving the downtown from the original plan calling for demolition.

There is a detailed account of that phase of the reconstruction we enjoy today written by the late Benjamin J. Stone when he served as president of the Historical Society of Old Newbury, in 1977. As far as I am aware, it is the only independent report of the internal events linking private and public players in the intense and prolonged struggle to save the downtown from what was frequently referred to as "the federal bulldozer," and is certain to be referenced in what someone should undertake: a complete and scholarly history of what happened, how it happened and who was responsible.

Then-Mayor Albert H. Zabriskie brought urban renewal to the city in the early 1960s when the concept was in its infancy. New Haven, Conn., was demolishing a large section of its downtown, and Boston was doing the same. The concept, supported by law, was that a properly constituted redevelopment authority could appropriate private property in a designated zone, and resell it to others who would make use of it in such a way as to provide benefits to the community as a whole that might not otherwise be accomplished.

The very idea was one to create controversy. When it affected historic landmarks, it was bound to be controversial. In Newburyport's case, as referenced in the Stone account, it centered on properties which were of major historic importance.

Abbott Lowell Cummings, then assistant director of the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, is quoted by Stone as having said, " (with) ... the demolition of India Wharf in Boston, Newburyport now has the best preserved 19th century commercial district on the Atlantic Seaboard, if not the entire nation."

A preservation movement, centered in the leadership of the Historical Society, had begun with an effort to energize public response, and central to that were Mr. and Mrs. Edmund Burke, Ed an architect whose special activities were in the area of Federalist period renovations and additions, and Ruth, an accomplished amateur in photography. They combined their skills to alert the community as to what would be lost under the demolition plan.

Meanwhile, the late Stanley Tucker arranged to have the NRA's architectural model of the downtown reconstruction following demolition displayed in his clothing store on State Street, and the backwash of reaction began to grow.

But of all those involved, the contributions of Dr. Wilkins, then chief of medicine at Boston University, were instrumental in the turnaround. Indefatigable as to intensity of commitment, he brought integrity, reputation and unquenchable energy that brought others into play. Furthermore, his public involvement led credibility to the restoration movement.

That became formal by way of a letter to the editor of this newspaper, July 20, 1964, which Stone's paper quotes, in part, " ... there is nothing incompatible between preserving the artistic heritage of a city and having modern industry as well; ... let us try to maintain both Newburyport's heritage and her commercial progress. For unless we succeed in both of these objectives, all of us will have lost something precious, and none will have gained anything of real value."

That produced a flood of letters to individuals and organizations, among which was the National Trust for Historic Preservation, headed by Gordon Gray, a college classmate of Dr. Wilkins, the result of which was a document defining the path ultimately supported by HUD. It reads as follows:

"The purpose of this Committee will be to work with local and national Urban Renewal and Redevelopment Authorities to assure that the most favorable plan is adopted for the rehabilitation of Newburyport's historic commercial area, particularly Market Square and lower State Street. It will recognize the desirability of increasing the tax base and at the same time of preserving the unique historic assets of the area. It will emphasize the potential economic value of tourist trade and endeavor to find ways of enhancing tourist attractions in the city. To these ends, the Committee will have among its members and invite among its consultants, experts on modern and Federal commercial architecture, and particularly on the restoration of old buildings. It will also seek the advice and counsel of local, state and national historic commissions, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and other similar authoritative organizations devoted to these matters. It will collect and maintain a file of information on the subject of the best plans of renewal of commercial historic districts, and it will make recommendations on one or more such plans for Newburyport. It will lead in taking action to secure popular and political support for its plan(s). Finally, it will seek and receive funds to promote its purposes from foundations and private philanthropists, and it will consider and recommend methods of raising funds for these purposes."

Ben Stone picked up on a following Daily News editorial appearing Aug. 10, 1964.

"We are pleased to be reading some dialog on this page concerning the redevelopment of Newburyport's downtown area. It's unfortunate that it comes so late, but perhaps that's because it takes time for ideas to crystallize ... "

One of those involved was a Hay Street, Newbury, neighbor, Jules D. Prown, then part-time curator of the Historical Society, and a close friend. Jules lived here for a few years during which he was writing what would become his two-volume, major biography of John Singleton Copley, the world-famous portraitist.

Jules, who would go on to become a life-long professor of American art at Yale, had chided me for not paying more attention to the importance of Newburyport's history, and he was right. Many Newburyport natives, on the whole, had merely accepted that history without understanding its value, and The Daily News began to do so, primarily in such areas as promoting Old Newburyport Yankee Homecoming, but also by focusing on attention to the progressing deterioration of the downtown, the major response to which having been Mayor Zabriskie's creation of the NRA.

Prown left the "Hist" for London in order to complete his research in the European experiences of Copley, and Paul Molitor took over as curator.

Dr. Wilkins was named chairman of the committee which met with the NRA board in 1964, and in September, when Molitor returned to college, Mrs. Robert Driver became secretary. Mrs. Dorice Chapman, then director of the YWCA, John H. Pramberg Jr., then president of the Institution for Savings, Edward W. Eames, then headmaster of Governor Dummer Academy, and Kennard Bowlen, who would, 25 years later, undertake the removal and restoration of the Bartlet Mall fountain, were added.

That was followed by an appeal for funding from the late Florence Evans Bushee, benefactress of several major gifts in her lifetime, not the least of which included the Oldtown Hill, Newbury, properties to the Trustees of Reservations.

The funds were then employed to invited William Graves Perry and his firm, Perry, Shaw, Hepburn & Dean, as consulting architects who ultimately produced a competitive, three-scale model of what a restored downtown could look like. By comparison, the NRA model was no match in the view of those who had been aroused by the initiatives out of the Historical Society committee, and the stage was set for the final struggle of the beginning in which Mayor George E. Lawler and Dr. Wilkins were to play major roles.


Bill Plante is former executive editor of Essex County Newspapers. His e-mail address is plantejr@highstream.net.

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