August 25, 2003




It was a close decision

(Editor's Note: The previous installment of a continuing account of restoration of most of downtown Newburyport --- Daily News, Aug. 11 --- concluded with a resolution in writing from George H. Lawler for the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority. This continuing account addresses the conditions in which that occurred, and the result.)

Push had come to shove between the restoration factions centered in a committee formed by the Historical Society of Old Newbury, and the members of the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority. Years had passed since the formation the NRA, membership of which consisted of those originally chosen by Mayor Albert H. Zabriskie. Theirs had been the charge of understanding and following the directives of the Department of Housing and Development, none of which had provided for restorations, and all wanted to get on with the project that had been stalled over restoration issues. All of the earlier planning had been on a basis of conforming to HUD regulations.

The counter movement in favor of saving what might be saved of the mid-19th century architecture was carried forward by the Historical Society Committee led by the late Dr. Robert W. Wilkins.

In his account of the activities of the Historical Society, Benjamin H. Stone, president in 1977, wrote of the dispute leading up to the Lawler amendment as follows:

"On March 4, 1965, as NRA meeting was attended by committee members Burke (Edmund), Pramberg (John, Jr.) and Wilkins, who tried to persuade the NRA board to change its plan. ... The NRA board was both disappointed and angry at the committee, whom they suspected had been responsible for the delay (in a HUD response to their letter). Dr. Wilkins then asked that the NRA change its plan by adding after the dreaded word 'demolition' the stipulation that this be at the developer's request. He also asked that the Perry Plan be given explicit consideration in the NRA Plan. Both requests were denied, the reason being given that any change 'even of one word' would delay, if not prevent, approval of the plan. Fear that all federal funds might be lost dominated NRA opposition and led to heated discussion ..."

Lawler, to whom, as former member of the Newburyport City Council, heated discussions were no novelty, understood the issues as well as anyone at the time, and sought a middle ground with the following resolution.

"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 plan of the Historical Society, which plans will be made known to them, this Authority will attempt to make any necessary changes in the 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."

There were not many cheers for what seemed to be an example of "half a loaf being better than none" proposal. Preservationists found it too weak, and those on the NRA who had been dealing with HUD for so long saw it as laying the groundwork for further delay. After considerable debate, authority members voted to accept it, an action that set the stage for resolving the dilemma in much less time than anyone had hoped. Wilkins was unsuccessful in his attempt to get the National Historic Trust to press HUD authorities to reassure the Newburyport NRA that elimination of the mandatory demolition clause would not jeopardize federal funding. The Historic Trust advised against pushing for a change at that time, but to "concentrate on implementing the Perry concept once the Urban Renewal funds had been obtained."

Disappointed as they were, the restoration committee members "had no choice but to go along with it," according to Stone. But then came a letter form HUD, two months later, relating to the Lawler resolution.

"The (Lawler) resolution of the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority that you have quoted in your letter is an extraordinary indication of the intentions of the Authority and other city officials to cooperate with the Historical Society in achieving the highest degree of historic preservation that may be feasible in Newburyport. This resolution makes it clear that even though the plan revisions you suggest might require a change in the entire concept of the Authority's proposals for the Commercial Business District Urban Renewal Project, the Authority and other local officials would be willing to consider making such a change at any time that the economic feasibility of the Historical Society's alternate plan is demonstrated by an expression of interest from a qualified redeveloper. In our opinion, this resolution provides strong evidence of the good faith of the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority in its attempt to carry out a program of Urban Renewal that respect the interests and needs of all local citizens."

Two major steps followed. The first was the development of the Perry plan for the Wilkins' led committee and confirmed by the Boston firm of R.M. Bradley, headed by Gordon Hall, who, together with the architect Tad Stahl, enforced the plan as being feasible. The endorsement letter from Hall reassured the NRA that "... integrating the Perry plan" will make a more visible commercial project than if it were not used. It will enhance the project itself and significantly benefit the merchants on the periphery of the project area. It also accomplishes the end of providing an extremely worthwhile historic and architectural entity ..."

No one should underestimate what had been accomplished. In no other city had HUD provided such an opportunity. Newburyport had made a footprint in the federal sands, and others would follow.

But it was the second step that Lawler took that brought credibility to the NRA effort, and that was when he got Dr. Wilkins to agree to accept an appointment to the Redevelopment Authority, thus wedding the two interest at the decision-making level.

Wilkins was not eager to accept appointment, according to Lawler. "Wilkins wasn't a purist," Lawler said in a recent interview. "He realized that some buildings had to go to save some others. He was practical. One person on the committee was a purist and wanted everything to stay. We all realized that couldn't happen. Wilkins was very open-minded. All of them said rehab cannot prevail and preservation cannot prevail. We have got to have project of some kind."

But getting Wilkins to serve on the Newburyport Revelopment Authority had taken some persuasion.

He had been surprised to find Lawler waiting for him in his driveway when he returned from Boston, Lawler said.

"I sat and waited until he got there. He was sort of adamant against it the first time we talked. Thought he was being put in the position where he was going to be used. 'No,' I said. 'Doctor, you can go in there and do your thing and be a good member. You'll never get any interference from me so far as I'm concerned.' He made a good member and was very fair down the line on this decision."

Stone's account ends with the following:

"The last meeting of the committee was held on July 31, 1965, and was recorded by Mrs. Driver's minutes as follows: 'The meeting ended with a jocose mood of optimism and self-congratulations which had hardly been noticeable before. Whether this happy feeling is premature remains to be seen.'"

It wasn't because it paved the way for what was to follow. None should dismiss the parallel efforts of those in the city government, and the members of the NRA, however. While some may well have been in support of some restoration, they were laboring under the restrictions imposed by Washington. City councilors, as is almost always the case, saw their roles as being representative of the wishes of the community at large; all were sick of the depressed conditions of the downtown, and few had faith in the efforts of the Wilkins' committee to change HUD's policies. Demolition and rebuilding seemed to be the only practical course.

There are always tensions between the office of the mayor and the council. Lawler, a former councilor, knew full well that credibility was essential to any negotiation, and that a frontal assault in either direction would be disastrous. Other cities had merely accepted what was possible under HUD, and those officials involved in Newburyport had scant faith in the prolonged effort to turn Washington around. What Lawler did was to embrace reality to forge a link that others might accept.

But it had been touch and go all the way, with, at one point, Lawler sitting in his chair facing a sheaf of papers awaiting his signature.

"It was a momentous decision," Lawler said. "All I had to do was sign my name and the project was on. I backed off and chose not do that. If I had signed them, the project would have been demolition."

He chose not to, and that made all the difference.

(A succeeding column will conclude the summary as it relates to Mayor Lawler's involvement in urban renewal. It will be followed by a series dealing with the challenges faced by Mayor Byron J. Matthews.)


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


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

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