, Newburyport, MA

October 7, 2007

Look of downtown signs a calculated process

John Macone

Anyone who lived in Newburyport in the early 1970s probably remembers Bob’s Subs.

There wasn’t anything particularly unusual about the submarine sandwiches, but Bob’s sign sure got a lot of attention.

Standing two stories tall, it dominated Market Square and covered the windows and brick facade of the building that now houses the Thirsty Whale bar.

It was just the kind of thing that irked Paul McGinley.

McGinley, the director of the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority in the early 1970s, was in a position to do something about it. Even though the Bob’s Subs building wasn’t technically part of the 22 acres of buildings and lots under the NRA’s control, the NRA had the power to make virtually all downtown signs conform to the new look of Newburyport — a look that called for small wooden signs like the ones that used to hang on State Street 100 years earlier.

At the NRA’s insistence, the sign at Bob’s Subs eventually came crashing down in 1976.

Today, some 31 years later, the NRA owns barely a sliver of that 22 acres. But it still holds sway over the look of the downtown. Almost every sign in downtown Newburyport must adhere to decisions made by the NRA. The five-member board also has power over other aspects of the appearance of the downtown — such as air conditioners protruding from windows, posters in store windows and banners.

And, of course, buildings. The NRA exercises control over the appearance of windows, doorways, roofs, gutters, downspouts and the like.

The crusade to bring conformity to Newburyport’s downtown signs began 42 years ago, when the NRA was given power to establish rules for creating a cohesive, attractive Colonial-era look. The battle over signs and facades in downtown Newburyport has never really ended.

“Every property within the redevelopment area has stated in its deed that they are required to abide by the NRA’s design standards,” said Mary Lou Supple, a former member of the board who served for a decade. “Initially, everyone was on board, but as properties turned over ... it became more contentious, especially in the recession.”

Signs of struggle

It was 1971 when McGinley declared the signs downtown “a complete hodgepodge.”

Beer signs, neon signs, illuminated signs, plastic signs, oversized signs covering windows, signs sticking out over sidewalks — Newburyport’s downtown was a clutter of commercial information overload.

“There’s no continuity to the placement and arrangement of signs on Pleasant and State streets,” he said at the time.

The NRA strove to come up with clear guidance and to enforce some semblance of uniformity. The size of signs was strictly limited according to a formula that takes the building’s size and frontage into account. Also limited was their placement, the material used, and the colors. The rules extend to awnings, window posters, stickers and the like — basically anything that can be seen as a place to promote goods or services.

The theme was Colonial, meaning signs were to be made of wood with no illumination and painted in colors that would have been common in the 18th and 19th centuries. Some also used the archaic style of signs that were commonplace in Colonial days when most Americans were illiterate — for example, a huge set of wooden eyeglasses looming over an optician’s doorway.

“We aren’t trying to dictate to them, but we do hope to provide some good guidelines for them,” McGinley said at the time.

The rules were quickly tested.

The first to run afoul was H&R; Block. In March 1972 it moved its office but wasn’t allowed to take its 3-foot-by-5-foot plastic illuminated sign with it. Instead, it had to have a painted wooden sign.

Others followed, like the massive Peaveys sign that overlooked Market Square. It was torn down. Bob’s Subs sign came down through an unusual means — the owner declined to pay for its removal, so the NRA solicited more than $300 in donations to pay for it.

There’s one neon sign, however, that was allowed to remain. The Fowles newsstand sign has a preservation easement and was left up as an example of its genre.

Enforcement issues

Supple said that over the years compliance with the NRA’s rules has waxed and waned, often in sync with the economic times.

When the economy is good, the sign rules are easier to enforce. When the economy has taken a downturn, there’s been more pressure to bend the rules, she said.

Despite the relative uniformity of signs downtown, there are still rampant violations of the regulations. The main culprit is posters and small signs that are placed in windows. Technically, posters can’t stay up for more than 21 days and must be related to goods or services available in the store. And they can’t take up more than 20 percent of a window. Some windows are filled with them.

And stickers — for example VISA and Mastercard stickers — are technically prohibited. Yet most stores have them.

“They’re not supposed to be there,” Supple said. “There is no one who enforces that.”

Did you know?

The Newburyport Redevelopment Authority’s rules state the following:

r Air conditioners can’t extend more than 2 inches beyond the masonry face of a building unless special permission is granted.

r Signs should use California Paint Co. colors, which are approved by the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, or Benjamin Moore historic colors.

r Posters can’t remain in store windows longer that 21 days, and they must be related to items or services for sale in the store. They can’t cover more than 20 percent of a store window.

r Signs on doors can be no bigger than 1 square foot

r Signs can’t project more than 4-feet, 8-inches over the sidewalk, or two thirds of the sidewalk’s width, whichever is less.