September 8, 2003



The door to restoration opens

(Editor's note: The previous article concerning the course of the urban renewal of downtown Newburyport ended with Mayor George H. Lawler's decision not to sign the documents that would have called for demolition and reconstruction, and the actions that had preceded it.)

George Lawler had cast the die against demolition of the downtown when he failed to sign the documents that would have started the federal bulldozer rolling. But he had done so with confidence in the process set in motion with growing numbers of the City Council, the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority and the working committee of the Historical Society that something less than a full loaf of restoration might be achievable. Better to save what could be saved and change what needed changing than to have to knock almost everything flat and build anew. The Department of Housing and Urban Renewal would come a long way to support the middle ground Lawler had offered, and all parties had accepted as being reasonable, and so the day was saved.

What follows is something of the events that resulted in the beginning of what we know today.

The need for action was something The Daily News had supported since Philip S. Weld had bought the newspaper in 1952. "Fix it up or tear it down" was the repeated theme of our editorials with the news coverage detailing controversies over most of a decade leading to Lawler's election in 1963. The newspaper supported change from what was, to whatever that change, including demolition and rebuilding, might be because of the continuing deterioration that we called "a spreading cancer."

But we also favored saving what might be saved, if that became possible, the position that was eventually adopted as a result of the willingness of those responsible to accept the compromise advanced by Lawler, Dr. Robert Wilkins and his committee, and, ultimately, by City Council members and the NRA. And there was the occasional jarring incident, one of them being the health of William Perry.

Perry, the Williamsburg architect responsible for the creation of the three-dimensional model that had won so many to the concept of restoration, and a personal friend of Wilkins, chairman of the Historical Society's committee, had been a major contributor to the dialogue.

"We had come from a meeting at City Hall, and were rounding the corner of Brown's Square when Bill Perry had a heart attack," Lawler said during a recent interview. "At that time, one of the first, if the only certified, member on the police force to know CPR, Pat Marsh, came along and revived him. We got him up to the hospital and he survived all right."

Perry had been brought aboard by Wilkins and had wide acceptance in matters of restoration in Washington. His loss would have been a major blow to credibility for restoration, and credibility, as ever it must be, was essential at all levels.

It is never easy to change matters seemingly set in Washington stone; nothing happens in such matters without attention to the red tape and protocol, and Lawler was fully engaged, without official staff in City Hall, in tending to all mayoral functions.

"After the (compromise) resolution had been approved (by the NRA), the city, at this point, did not have a project," Lawler said. "There were many things necessary. We had to have an approved plan by the city, funding of the project, and other key ingredients. I had to have a public hearing, and I believe it may have been June of '65, upstairs in the auditorium of City Hall. Strangely, Dr. Wilkins, Ed Burke, and Hack Pramberg got up and spoke in favor of approving the (NRA) plan, (calling for demolition) and they knew they were out of it. They knew something had to happen. This was a strange marriage with the opponents appearing in favor of something because we had to get something done. It was cooperation.

"The story of urban renewal, at that time, was the bulldozer in Connecticut and Boston, and so that was the concept of it.

"We had the public hearing, the plan was approved by the City Council -- not unanimous but approved -- the cooperation agreement between the city and the federal government was approved. And the next step was the funding. I chose not to put the City Council on the spot with a bond issue before an election. After the election it was approved."

Lawler did not sign the papers which would have resulted in demolition, and that made all the difference in Newburyport, and it other communities, including Boston.

That he didn't has been something only those directly involved understood. The moment was critical because the combined action ultimately forced HUD to face a new reality, and that was the sufficient interest in Newburyport, as demonstrated through channels leading from the Historical Society's initiatives, supported by the NRA, to restore some buildings. If restoration was to have any chance now, it would be up to HUD, now fully cognizant of the opportunities and choices to be made.

I had talked, off the record, with Tucker before that City Council vote, and understood that while there was no public record of the agreement, a sufficient number of councilors were aboard to play their role in what was to follow.

In short, what Newburyport was holding out was a stick and a carrot; the willingness of the city to accept the worst of the solutions, the evidence of which were the papers on Lawler's desk, and an opportunity to open the door to restoration wherever possible, in the form of the compromise solution Lawler had put together and all parties had accepted. There is no documentation of the strategy save for the action taken and its ultimate success.

No one will ever know what was happening in Washington, as it related to the possibilities of restoration as an alternative to the bulldozer, but Newburyport had fashioned an option that may have been seen as a solution to pending projects, not excluding those of major cities.

Meanwhile, a local corporation, which had adopted the name of "Phoenix" as in "rising from the ashes" and the Phoenix building sign across from Fowle's, had been formed, and presented a model of their plan as a demonstration of what restoration might be like.

"Quite frankly," Lawler said, "despite their good intentions, that model almost killed the thing again, because they massed buildings on the waterfront which was a key thing, and you couldn't even have parked a bicycle on the waterfront. People saw that and got as upset as they did over the buildings coming down.

"And then R.M. Bradley, Hall and Moscow, and Gordon Hall became involved. In fact, Gordon Hall came in and bought a lot of houses in the South End and started that program."

Redefining the urban renewal area also made matters easier than they might have been. The newly defined area was limited to the westerly side of State Street on the theory that if that were restored, owners of the properties on the southeasterly side would be encouraged to follow suit.

So, too, was upper side of Pleasant Street, excluded, as was the Water Street area leading to Lime.

"It's amazing that it (our hopes) succeeded," Lawler said.

(While this summary includes only some of the highlights of the activities during Mayor Lawler's two terms, it sets the stage for what followed, especially during the 10 physically turbulent years of the five terms of Mayor Byron J. Matthews, summaries of which will follow.)


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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