, Newburyport, MA

March 30, 2012

Compromise to keep what we have

To the editor:

As a property owner who purchased a 1960s Colonial in the proposed LHD in 1990, demolished and rebuilt it in 2004, I would like to comment on the issues under discussion.

Among architectural historians, Newburyport is considered to have "one of the greatest intact collections of Federalist-era buildings in North America, from the modest row houses of Middle Street to the exceptional mansions of High Street." North America! This was noted by my son, an architectural historian from Virginia.

I am not clear about whether creating the historic district or changing zoning regulations is the optimum way of protecting our architectural heritage. But I am clear that we need to protect it, need to acknowledge it as an asset, an irreplaceable public amenity, as well as a driver of the local economy. People visit Beacon Hill or Charleston, S.C., for many of the same reasons they visit Newburyport — to take in its history and charm.

It makes sense that there be some reasonable regulation of demolition of buildings that give Newburyport its distinctive character, and that there are judicious reviews of new construction and renovations so that they are compatible with the existing historic fabric. I do not mean that we should create replicas or use "old" materials, but that we consider compatible, complementary structures. Carefully worded guidelines for a review board (staffed by neighbors, not robots) should allow for using good judgment in making exceptions for distinguished design and for reasonable compromises. Board members ideally would have a functional and aesthetic sensitivity to a design's contribution or detraction to what exists. Compatibility, not just replication, would be my focus.

Defending property rights, not as a personal need but as a principle, seems to be a stumbling block to a "yes" vote for any kind of regulation. I see "yes" to some regulation as a demonstration of respect for our roles as stewards of what we have inherited by living here. This is not about "I win, you lose" or "I'm right and you're wrong"; it is about a win for Newburyport's stature in the annals of American architecture and history. The bones of this city were here long before we were. Most of the residents are not related to the founders, the ship builders and early farmers, but in some way, we are here today because of them. To have lived here for two years or several generations and ignore Newburyport's historical prominence architecturally seems disrespectful. We are fortunate to be a part of that history and need to consider our roles in protecting that seriously. We can collectively shape the city's future and allow future generations to experience a sense of its history long after our presence is felt on these streets. The responsibility for that today is only ours.

Being open to changing our views and compromise are an anathema in our current society. To be able to model that in Newburyport for a unifying purpose would be amazing.

L.M. Klee