July 22, 2003

 

 

30 years later, Inn Street thrives

By KATE SPINNER

Staff Writer


NEWBURYPORT -- Venturing into a boarded-up downtown in 1972, five enterprising men decided to play a major role in resuscitating Newburyport.

With ambition, dedication and respect for history, Jonathan Woodman, Christopher Snow, Swift Barnes, Richard Sullivan Sr. and Michael Rowan turned lower Inn Street -- once slated for demolition under Urban Renewal -- into part of a thriving community. Today each of them still owns the buildings they restored and over the course of 30 years they have seen the city around them emerge from abandonment.

Inn Street resembled a ghost town 31 years ago, as did several other streets in the downtown. All of the buildings on the lower block had been vacant for at least five years before the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority sold them for the city's first redevelopment project.

A photograph taken in 1972, when renovation began, depicts a desolate Inn Street lined in buildings with boarded windows and crumbling brick. The narrow asphalt street leads toward the waterfront, past a string of utility poles and a block of empty lots overgrown with weeds and strewn with boards, bricks and garbage. Despite the poor condition of the buildings and discouragement from others, the five delved into the restoration with gusto.

"People told us we were crazy. Knock them down ... ," Woodman said. "I was talking to people whose opinion I respected and they said, 'Newburyport, it's the pits.' "

The five Inn Street buildings were the first in the country to be purchased by a redevelopment authority and sold for restoration under the federal Urban Renewal program. "This group of five indisputably were the first to restore a building as part of the Urban Renewal process," said Woodman. "Prior to that it was urban removal."

Though demolition would have been easier, the five gutted each building, replaced mortar between the brick, rebuilt irreparable walls, and installed new roofs. Woodman's building had suffered the worst from abandonment. A fire, started by vagrants squatting in the building, had charred the brick and burned through the roof. Rife with vines growing through the brick, the rear wall needed to be rebuilt and the roof replaced.

"The only thing holding this place together was the force of habit," said Woodman, quoting the structural engineer who surveyed his building.

With all men working full-time on their own buildings, aided by friends, family and hired labor, the rebuilding process was complete within about one year. "Nothing ventured, nothing gained," said Sullivan, who renovated 16 Inn St. with the help of his wife, Laurine, and children. "So we jumped in with both feet."

By 1973 all five buildings had been renovated and tenants began to move in to establish apartments, offices and retail businesses. While lower Inn Street stood converted to tip-top shape, the town around them remained in crumbling disarray. "We were in kind of a no man's land down there for a few years," said Sullivan.

After closing Inn Street to traffic and removing utility poles, sidewalks and debris, the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority laid brick across all of Inn Street in 1975, and built the Green Street parking lot. Over the course of the next several years, the city metamorphosed from a downtrodden shell to an upbeat central business-place.

"People look at this now and think it was a no-brainer, but this was very risky," said Snow, who renovated the Inn Street building at the corner of Market Square where Brass Lyon is located. "This history, looking back on Urban Renewal, it was fits and starts subject to economic times. It wasn't easy and anyone who thinks it was is quite mistaken."

Woodman, who remembers the history of Urban Renewal, said that in the 1950s and 1960s interstate highways began to spring up across the nation. Developers built shopping centers near the highways and economic activity shifted, decimating the livelihoods of small retailers, grocers, and tradesmen who had depended on the flow of traffic through the downtown.

When the shopping center at Storey Avenue was built, neighborhood stores in Newburyport's downtown could not compete either. As downtowns suffered, shop owners abandoned buildings and left a trail of urban blight across the nation.

Responding to the phenomenon, the federal government began the Urban Renewal program with the notion that the old should be wiped away to make room for the new. The premise of the program was to convert downtowns into wide shopping centers serviced by central arteries.

Redevelopment authorities were formed to buy buildings -- even through eminent domain -- and demolish them. Once the old infrastructure was removed, the authorities were charged with building modern infrastructure and shopping plazas.

"They called it the federal bulldozer ... ," said Woodman, who said he was dismayed by what urban renewal did to Haverhill where he was working. "These redevelopment authorities were doing frontal lobotomies to these communities."

Woodman said he first hoped to build an office in Haverhill's old library, but Urban Renewal tore down the building. "I got so frustrated with what was going on in Haverhill, I said, 'to hell with this,' " said Woodman.

He saw his hometown, Newburyport, taking a different approach to revitalization and he decided to join in.

According to a history published in 1977 by the Historical Society of Old Newbury, Newburyport's decision to restore, rather than tear down, did not come easily. In the early '60s popular belief still held fast to the idea of demolition as progress. People who had grown up in Newburyport, whose memories and lives were woven into the fabric of the historic downtown, fought vigorously against the tide of destruction.

As a member of the Committee on Renewal and Restoration, formed in 1964 and chaired by Dr. Robert W. Wilkins, John H. Pramberg Jr. -- who became president of the Institution for Savings in 1967 -- was one of those people. "I disagreed completely with the demolition," said Pramberg. "I just knew that there were great buildings here."

After the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority and the federal government gave the city the go-ahead to restore the downtown, Pramberg had the power to make restoration economically feasible, by lending to people such as Woodman, Sullivan, Snow and Rowan.

When many other banks shied away from such risky endeavors, the Institution for Savings did not. Neither did the Newburyport Five Cents Savings Bank that financed the restoration of Barnes' building.

"All five of the developers were local people and I knew them all personally ... ," said Pramberg. "They were all local and they all were willing to put a lot of sweat equity into those buildings. The reason we lent to them was because of the character of the borrowers."

The character of the borrowers, according to tenants, also contributed to the unique stability of Inn Street.

Steve Lyons, owner of The Brass Lyon, said the city was lonely when he first opened, but all the Inn Street building owners worked with tenants to make sure they stayed in Newburyport.

For about three decades, at least three commercial tenants have operated out of the same Inn Street spaces. Rowan has leased to the Elephant's Truck since the restoration, as has Snow to the Brass Lyon and Woodman to The Rose Medallion.

Gloria Solomita, who will be retiring and closing The Rose Medallion at the summer's end, said Woodman's understanding of her needs as a small business kept her at Inn Street for so long.

She and Lyons said their landlords charged inexpensive rents while Newburyport was in transition and then gradually increased rents as the city's economic outlook sharpened.

Doing business on a virtual island proved to be one of the biggest challenges facing building owners and tenants alike, said Sullivan, Rowan and the others, but they each developed or already had clientele who were willing to walk over planks and through construction to continue supporting them.

In addition to Woodman and his architecture firm, all five building owners already ran established businesses. Rowan moved his orthodontia practice from Green Street to Inn Street. Sullivan moved his credit and collection agency from Pleasant Street. Snow had been running an antiques business and Barnes used his building to house a craft showroom for his Merrimac Street business -- Old Newbury Crafters. The business has evolved toward fine art over the years and now his daughter is running The Churchill Gallery out of the same space.

Woodman and Rowan are still running their businesses on Inn Street, while Sullivan and Snow now have offices at home.

Woodman, Snow, Barnes, Rowan and Sullivan all said their decision to run their businesses in the buildings allowed them the flexibility to charge reasonable rents and to develop a close relationship with their tenants.

"An owner-occupant can function on a different level," Woodman said. He and Sullivan also said that as owner-occupants they had a tighter investment in their buildings. "It wasn't as much a real estate investment as much as it was a livelihood investment," Woodman said.

Woodman and Sullivan said that in addition to owner-occupancy, one of the biggest differences between the Inn Street buildings and the other blocks of buildings in Newburyport was that each building on the Inn Street block was sold separately. Developers purchased numerous buildings all at once on State, Merrimac and Water streets, in hopes of turning the buildings over for profit, said Sullivan and Woodman.

Although both methods of redevelopment have ultimately worked for Newburyport, Woodman said he and his Inn Street neighbors showed others that restoration was a good idea and that it could be done profitably. While the people who fought to save downtown Newburyport were acting on gut instinct and passion for their own history and heritage, Woodman said he and his neighbors proved the theory of the activists who turned the Urban Renewal program around.

"We were the ones that showed the new policy made sense. We made it work," said Woodman. "We were the second wave; we proved their theory."

 

 
 

 

 

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

 
 
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