, Newburyport, MA

February 28, 2013

A tribute to Mayor George Lawler

Newburyport Daily News

---- — To the editor:

Mayor George Lawler was a very special person. He was kind; he was generous; and he was wise. In addition he had two other positive personality traits that are exceedingly rare. George Lawler was a good listener and he could think “outside the box.”

Therefore, on Saturday morning, Feb. 28, 1965, Mayor Lawler listened carefully to Dr. Robert Wilkins, a professor of medicine, John Pramberg, president of the Institution for Savings, and local architect Edmund Burke as they described their vision for Greater Market Square. The trio insisted that the revitalization of Newburyport’s economy would not result from the demolition of the antique buildings in Market Square, but instead from their preservation and eventual restoration.

When Wilkins, Pramberg and Burke expressed concern that the NRA (Newburyport Redevelopment Authority) might not consider a developer who wanted to restore Market Square, Mayor Lawyer wrote a Resolution, which declared that the City of Newburyport and the NRA would evaluate every developer’s proposal in a fair and equitable manner.

Immediately after the meeting, Dr. Wilkins mailed HUD (the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development) a copy of the “Lawler Resolution.” In his cover letter, Wilkins wrote that the document is clear proof that Newburyport is now considering alternatives to the demolition of Market Square, and that among these alternatives is its preservation followed by its restoration.

Because Mayor Lawler was able to listen in an unbiased manner, because he was able to think in a new way, he was also able to understand the merits of preservation and restoration.

During the next several months, both Dr. Wilkins and Mayor Lawler worked to undo the city’s original legal commitment to destroy all of Greater Market Square.

Dr. Wilkins continued his relentless pursuit of an agreement from nationally famous architect William Perry, to create a scale model of a restored Market Square. Such a model was needed both to satisfy HUD that an alternative plan truly existed and to convince the dubious Newburyport public that a renewed Market Square would be desirable. Mayor Lawler, meanwhile, used his political skills and savvy to convert the assumptions of Newburyport’s elected and non-elected officials from demolition to preservation.

On May 17, 1965, Mayor Lawler wrote to Dr. Wilkins:

“I would like to thank you for your efforts ... on behalf of the betterment of the entire City of Newburyport … I hope we will be able to continue to work together, as we have done recently.”

In June 1965, Mayor Lawler prevailed upon Dr. Wilkins to join the NRA. Lawler explained to the professionally busy Wilkins that the best way to insure their present progress was to participate in its ongoing evolution. Dr. Wilkins chaired the NRA for six years, all the while pushing HUD toward the idea of preservation.

Mayor George Lawler was not only a creative listener and thinker, he was also a wise and courageous leader. He boldly supported a vision of urban renewal that HUD had never before tried. Because Lawler rejected HUD’s policy of demolition, and because Dr. Wilkins defiantly led the NRA in planning the preservation of Market Square, HUD in March 1971 gave in. HUD funded the city’s unique renewal proposal, and Newburyport stepped on the threshold of its most dramatic economic success since the days of the clipper ships.

Mary Wilkins Haslinger