What would Newburyport be like today if it were not for George Lawler?
We can count him among those who stood at a crossroad in the city’s history and chose the right path, not necessarily the easy path.
Lawler died yesterday, at age 85. He served as mayor from 1964 to 1968, pivotal years in Newburyport’s recent history. He is credited with making the decision that went against the grain of what was the trend of the time — he chose to emphasize restoration of the city’s historic downtown, at a time when nearly every city was tearing down the old and replacing it with the garish new.
Today, we can be eternally thankful for this humble and dedicated public servant’s wisdom.
He was a Newburyport native and grew up in the city as it struggled through hard times. At age 37, he found himself in the mayor’s office, at a time when the dilapidated state of the city’s downtown had citizens and politicians pushing hard for change. Lawler listened to one of the key voices in that debate — the city’s historical society and preservationists — and took the steps that turned the tide in their favor.
First, he refused to sign a federal document that would have put in motion plans to tear down about two blocks of historic Federalist-era buildings on State Street, as well as all of Market Square and Inn Street. The “urban renewal” plan was to replace them with a one-story strip mall and a big parking lot.
“It was on my desk,” Lawler told The Daily News in 2007. “All I had to do was sign it and it was done.”
Instead, he sent a letter to the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority, asking it to emphasize restoration in its plans for redeveloping the downtown.
Next, he made sure that outspoken preservationist Dr. Robert Wilkins got on the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority board. The manner in which this happened says something about George Lawler.
Lawler drove to Dr. Wilkins’ High Street home and sat in the driveway, waiting for him to return from work. At first, Wilkins refused Lawler’s offer to join the NRA board. But Lawler persisted, promising him that he would not be a token preservationist voice on the NRA. Finally, Dr. Wilkins relented and joined the board.
It proved to be a pivotal appointment. Wilkins’ persuasive advocacy of restoration changed the NRA’s direction, little by little.
Lawler lost his mayoral seat in the 1967 election, but that hardly kept him from public service. He would go on to work for the NRA for a few years, then took over as city clerk. He was later elected to the City Council, and up until his passing, served on the Newburyport Water Commission.
In a 2007 interview with The Daily News, Dr. Wilkins’ daughter put George Lawler’s contributions in perspective.
“I’ve always thought that George Lawler is the unsung hero of Newburyport’s urban renewal story,” said Mary Wilkins Haslinger. “If George hadn’t written that resolution that asked the NRA to consider preserving the old buildings instead of tearing them all down, everything could be gone now.”
Other mayors who followed Lawler would see the restoration concept through to its fruition. Most of those mayors are duly recognized and feted in the downtown with memorials and plaques, but not George Lawler. None of the bricks or concrete was laid during his time in office, but the foundation he laid underlies everything. We should remember that in an appropriate way.
He was a quiet and humble giant in the history of Newburyport, a man who made the right decisions at a crucial time.