NEWBURY — It’s been called “the soul of Old Newbury,” the landmark estate on Newman Road of a beloved and generous philanthropist and true conservationist. And now it’s gone forever.
The Florence E. Bushee home — originally built by Samuel Newman in 1812 then bought by Bushee’s father, Wilmot Evans, in 1907 — was razed along with one of the two barns on the property this week, ostensibly to make way for a small subdivision of single-family homes.
During her lifetime, Florence Evans Bushee (1881-1975) donated untold time and personal resources in order to save as much of the history of Newbury and Newburyport as one person conceivably could. So the decision last weekend by the property’s current owner, Barry Coscia, trustee of Bushee Real Estate Trust, to bulldoze the 200-year-old home and adjacent cow barn that once belonged to Bushee came as a hard blow to many residents who value the significant contributions she made on behalf of future generations.
According to the Essex South Registry of Deeds, Dr. Sadruddin B. Hemani sold the 6 acres at 19, 21 and 23 Newman Road to Coscia for $2,150,000 on Dec. 18, 2012. As part of the transaction, Coscia purchased the three-lot definitive subdivision on 4.3 acres at 23 Newman Road and a private cul-de-sac named Florence Bushee Lane, which Hemani got Planning Board approval for in 2008. Under the town’s zoning bylaws, the properties support a total of five single-family homes. Coscia could not be reached for comment on his plans for the land.
But a loss of this magnitude may just be the clarion call that galvanizes historic preservationists throughout the community to push for ways to better identify historic properties well before they face a bulldozer’s blade. And when they do, it will be an act of respect for the gracious, yet humble lady who they say “left her community a better place because she lived there.”
On Sunday an outdoor memorial service open to the public is planned at that former Bushee Farm at 1 p.m. as a way to honor the life and good works of Bushee and to say goodbye to the once-thriving crop, horse and cattle farm known as Oldtown Hill Stables that she founded on the Newman Road property in 1925. The service will be held in front of the remaining horse barn on the property, with local author and equestrian Holly Pulsifer on hand to share her photos of the farm and horses that Bushee raised there.
“Anyone who knew Mrs. Bushee is welcome to share their memories of her and her good work,” said organizer Adele Pollis, an abutter to the Bushee Estate. From the number of emails and calls she has received about Sunday’s gathering so far this week, Pollis is hopeful turnout will be high.
Always an ardent lover of early American antiques, Bushee is credited with helping to preserve the historic and pastoral atmosphere enjoyed on the Lower Green today. It was Bushee who saved and extensively renovated the original 1728 Seddon Tavern and the Dole-Little House, built in 1715. In 1952, she donated 126 acres to Trustees of Reservations to create Oldtown Hill Reservation, located across Newman Road from her homestead. The donation honored the wishes of Stephen Hale, from whom her family bought the land. She added 67 adjoining acres in the 1960s, bequeathing 25 more acres upon her death.
A former director of the Historical Society in Newburyport, Bushee was a key financial contributor in the effort to restore downtown Newburyport in the 1960s. She financed the restoration of several early 19th century mercantile buildings in ways that emphasized the significant role the shipping port played in early American history. Although she preferred quiet acts of charity and philanthropy, Bushee was a generous benefactress for the Anna Jaques Hospital, The Lone Tree Council of Boy Scouts, the YWCA and the Congregational Church in Newbury.
The home that carried her name boasted a twin chimney 2 1/2-story colonial with 13 rooms and eight open fireplaces, ornamental gardens, a carriage house, a post and beam cow barn and multi-stall horse barn.
But the once-stately site had been serving as rental property in recent years and had suffered because of it. “We had noted its neglected state over the years and had held the vain hopes that someone could restore the estate to its original glory,” said Gillian Ingraham, a former Newbury resident who now lives in Newburyport.
Newburyport resident Marge Motes summed up the feelings of many when learning of the demolition on Newman Road. “It is ironic that such a woman as Florence Evans Dibble Bushee — who has left such a mark on preservation in this area — would lose her home in such a manner.” The swiftness of the demolition and the relative lack of public awareness about it ahead of time was what shocked her and others, Motes said.
It marks the second time in less than a year that the community has been stunned in this way by the decision of a private landowner. Last March, despite significant protests from the public, more than 200 years of history was reduced to rubble when the Federal-style Tappan House on Little’s Lane was razed. Built by Revolutionary War privateer Offin Boardman for his son-in-law, Amos Tappan, the property, purchased in 2011 for $1.6 million, includes a 4,276-square-foot barn, which the owners have said will remain intact. The Tappan House sat on 5.16 acres abutting conservation land and the Spencer-Peirce-Little Farm.
Devastated by the recent losses of properties that have been “part of the history of Old Newbury for centuries,” High Road resident Jessica Hachmeister questions “why we have to lose our history in order to have progress?”
Lon Hachmeister, Jessica’s husband, believes preserving such sites for future generations should be a top priority, given the pivotal role Newbury and Newburyport played in the founding and early history of the nation.
Edward Becker, executive director of Essex County Greenbelt, was also feeling the loss this week. When Hemani first put the property near the Lower Green up for sale in 2010, Becker’s organization worked with some in the community to raise $500,000 to protect a 4-acre portion from development.
“While we wished we could have acquired the entire property, it was not financially feasible. Greenbelt believes that the most appropriate response to the development on the remainder of the property is best addressed by the residents of Newbury,” Becker stated.
With both the Tappan House and the Bushee Estate, the choices made were by landowners acting within their legal rights on their own private property. The razing of the Tappan house last year set off discussions in Newbury of what can be done to preserve the town’s landmark old homes.
For towns that have adopted the Community Preservation Act, a list of properties deemed significant to that town’s unique history can tap CPA funding for projects. Both public and private properties can access CPA money as long as the application and approval process is correctly followed. In Newburyport, for example, CPA funds are regularly targeted for the continued restoration of St. Anna’s chapel in St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.
But Newbury has not adopted CPA legislation.
So Pollis and her neighbors are investigating another option — adopting the state’s Demolition Delay Bylaw. Under the bylaw, before owners of homes identified as having historic significance can obtain a demolition permit from the Building Department, the Historical Commission must review the plans. Should the commission see value in preserving the property, a delay period is imposed to allow time to review other possible alternatives to demolition. If no agreeable solution is found, once the time period expires, the inspection office may sign off on the request and the demolition can proceed.
Pollis was uncertain whether there has been any local effort made previously to adopt the bylaw. But as they came to grips with the depth of what was lost historically this week, Pollis said she and some of her neighbors discussed making the attempt.
Perhaps in this way they can pay long-term homage to the life-long cause Bushee held close to her heart.