August 11, 2003

 

 

For many, seeing was believing

(Editor's Note: The following is the third of a continuing series dealing with the history of Urban Renewal in Newburyport.)

Reflecting the division over what should be done to re-create a viable downtown business district, the Newburyport City Council was agreed on a fundamental premise. While some independent businesses continued to be successful, the general deterioration seemed irreversible and urban renewal, in one form or another, was essential.

Individual businesses had done what they might, and a few took courageous, independent steps.

Arthur S. (Bill) Page Jr., of Page Insurance, was the first to take up the challenge when he undertook the restoration of the State Street building (still housing the family business) as a model of what restoration, rather than rehabilitation, could mean. Some independent rehabilitation and movement followed, but little by way of restoration.

Malcolm Lunt and Edward Kelly had purchased Wilson's Hardware next to the Unitarian Church in the early 50's, rejuvenating the business while leaving the former mill building much as it had been. Stanley (Ty) and Elaine Tucker would later upgrade the building when they moved the Kray Stores for Men and Women's clothing from State Street to the mill building site of the former hardware stores, after Lunt and Kelly moved to the present location on outer State Street.

The H.W. Pray department store would move to the Lincoln Stores location adjacent to Kray's on Pleasant Street when Lincoln's closed.

But all of the independent moves were outside the perimeter of the deterioration in process on Inn, State and Merrimac streets, with the waterfront itself resembling nothing more than a wasteland with islands of commerce facing on Merrimac street.

One of the outcomes of the great Newburyport fire that destroyed the downtown of the early settlers was ordinances requiring firewall in the new brick construction that followed. They are visible today on the rooftops of the downtown business district. These resulted in floor spaces suitable for the times and for a century and a half in which small shops provided adequate space for the kind of merchandising that preceded what we know today. Restoration, rather than renovation, would make it difficult, if not impossible, to enlarge floor space, thus limiting choices as t the types of use essential to support the cost of restoration, subsequent maintenance and reasonable profit for the shopkeeper, as well as the property owners.

Eventually, ordinances would have to be changed --- chief among them being the use of upper stories for condominiums and while all of that would take place later on, the consideration, however dimly defined in debate, added to the political difficulties faced by those in and out of office.

Those still living who were part of that years-long colloquy could add to what is generally touched upon here, because the written record is but a fragment of the dialogues, friendly and confrontational, that continued over nearly 30 years and continue even today.

But there were the specific details of turnaround, as in the account by Benjamin J. Stone, then president of the Historical Society of Old Newbury, written in 1977, and referenced in earlier accounts of this series. "... in mid-summer the NRA displayed an architectural model of its plan in a State Street store window ..."

A personal digression is necessary here.

The decision to make that happen followed a conversation I had with the late Ty Tucker, co-owner with his wife, Elaine,e of clothing stores when they were still on upper State Street. Tucker was on the City Council, and we talked one day of the need for citizens to see what was being planned by way of the demolition and rebuilding of the downtown. The NRA had an architectural model, but it was kept in the offices of the NRA out of the public view. I suggested that he have it moved to his window fronting State Street. He was able to get the loan of it, people began to stop by, and gradually the street and organizational buzz, much of it negative, grew.

Ben Stone put it this way:

"Historically-minded people were aghast ... Dr. Wilkins ... consulted with the Burkes (Ed and Ruth) and with Dudley Currier, well-known antiquarian and furniture restorer ... the conciliatory tone of that letter aroused immediate local sympathy and support leading to a number of private meetings ... The most important ... one held August 18, 1964 ... sought the advice of Mayor Zabriskie on how to proceed ... they got up a committee empowered to raise funds for preservation. Dr. Wilkins was appointed chairman."

Meanwhile, Ruth Burkes was conducting her own slide shows, and similar programs were being offered to the service clubs, and slide showings to selected groups evenings at the Daily News.

The visuals began to make an impression, something not lost upon the Historical Society committee then considering proposals by Williams Grave Perry of Williamsburg fame, and a Newburyport native brought aboard by the committee.

Stone's account picks up on that as follows:

"The Committee ... set aside the remaining portion of its funds ... retain Mr. Perry and his firms, and commission them to come up speedily with an alternative plan accompanied by specific drawings or 'renderings' to be presented to the City Council and the public."

Following that initiative, the Historical Society committee urged the Perry architectural firm to produce a model of what a restored downtown would look like, and the issues were joined in a way that energized those who had not been engaged in the debate.

The following commission from the records of the Historical Society, as reported by Stone, was presented and approved at the September 8, 1964 meeting of the board.

"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 district. It will seek a plan that will improve upon the commercial usefulness and architectural attractiveness of the 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 the local, state, and national historic commissions, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and other similar 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.

"The committee ... reviewed his ideas of combining the old with the new in a frank effort 'to please everyone' and thereby be more effective politically. Some of Mr. Perry's schemes, notably his though of preserving only the facades of the State Street buildings, and of placing Plexiglas domes over Inn Street, repelled some Committee members. Others of his ideas, especially his emphasis on pedestrian traffic in the Inn Street-Market Square area, were most attractive, and indeed were carried out in the ultimate design ..."

Perry went far beyond what had been intended by way of his own participation in the selling process, according to Stone, who adds, "However, the orderly processing of his ideas in an architectural "Program," and then into 'renderings' was obliviously going to be far slower than the Committee had hoped or could wait for." On January 4, 1965, the committee wrote to Mr. Perry that it had 'considered again the impasse we seem to have reached in our efforts to come up with an acceptable counter-proposal ... As Mayor Lawler himself said, 'we really don't have anything new to take to the Council. They, like most Newburyporters, have to be shown the idea, they can visualize it.' In short, the Committee asked Mr. Perry and his firm to bypass their usual methodical, conservative approaches and come up quickly with something both visual and dramatic --- namely, a model. This move brought quick action.

Ben Stone saw that as the turning point for joining the struggle to follow. It also provided us with a lesson in what it takes to crystallize public policy. Concepts are cerebral. Words and drawings place the burden on "seeing" on those to whom they are directed. Architectural representations by way of models afford specific perspectives.

Stone writes, "... the unveiling of the initial Perry Plan was the high point of the Committee's work. Nevertheless, the Committee worked at a fever pitch for many more months because it regarded the actual restoration of downtown Newburyport as a remote possibility, at best. Again, in retrospect, the Perry Plan, though far from acceptable in all its details, served a most useful political purpose as the single, really important factor in turning Newburyporters and the NRA away from demolition and toward rehabilitation ..."

But an even greater burden had to be met by Mayor George E. Lawler, the Newburyport City Council, and the NRA, because HUD viewed restoration as being outside the parameters of urban renewal, and what was commonly referred to as the federal bulldozer was considered by most as invincible.

It would, however, fail to overcome the strategies and resolve made possible by the following resolution written by Mayor George E. Lawler.

"Should an otherwise qualified developer, who indicates a sincere desire to purchase land from the Authority, express a desire to redevelop the area in a manner expressive of the plans of the Historical Society, which plans will be made known to them, this Authority will attempt to make any necessary changes in its present plans, consistent with sound municipal planning and economic feasibility, and will further present such changes to the proper public bodies for the necessary reviews and approvals."

The reaction to, and the relevance of that resolution will be the subject of the following article in this series.

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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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