, Newburyport, MA

March 23, 2007

Page building a forerunner of Port's transformation

Nick Pinto

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NEWBURYPORT | When Arthur S. Page walks through Newburyport's bustling downtown these days, in his mind he can still see what the city's commercial center looked like 50 years ago.

"Newburyport was in bad shape," Page recalled in a recent interview. "Inn Street looked like a bombed-out street in Europe after World War II. All the buildings were in bad repair. Many of them were uninhabitable."

But if the once-thriving city had fallen on hard times by the 1950s, the insurance company Page had taken over from his father was booming. It had outgrown its office space on Pleasant Street, and Page was looking for a new office location. In 1959 he moved into the building at 57 State St., and shortly afterward began renovating the building, an early investment in a struggling downtown that was still a decade away from its comprehensive revitalization.

"I'd like to think that I was far-sighted and I was investing in the downtown because I saw all the changes coming," Page said. "But that's not true. In 1960, I was 31 years old, and I didn't know any better. I just needed the space."

The building at 57 State St. had been built in 1853. A hardware store originally occupied the first two floors, while the top floor housed Newburyport's Company A Cushing Guard, a unit that later distinguished itself in the Civil War battle of Antietam. Over the next 24 years, the building changed hands several times, being used for a period as a carpet warehouse.

In 1877, the building was bought for $8,300 by the local post of the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization for veterans of the Civil War. A severe gale blew the roof off the building in 1882, and it underwent renovations. As the generation of Civil War veterans began to die through the early 20th century and membership in the Grand Army of the Republic diminished, the building was transferred to its successor organization | the Sons of Union Veterans | which continued to use the top floors of the building, leasing the ground floor to a dry-goods store.

By the 1950s, however, the building was in very bad shape.

"The roof was leaking and needed to be completely replaced," Page said. "The boiler had to be replaced. The facade was in terrible shape, downright dangerous. There were these heavy brownstone lintels over the windows that were falling down on the street."

Using a design by Newburyport architect Russell Peirce, Page hired Newbury contractor Robert Bashaw to replace the facade, roof, window and boilers. He installed a flag pole, the first erected in the city in a long time, and on his wife's advice he planted window boxes on all three floors. Page estimates the renovations cost about $20,000 at the time.

Page wasn't actively involved in the planning or execution of the massive federal renewal project of the '60s and '70s, but his decision to revitalize his own patch of downtown served as an inspiration to others, and a hint of what could be accomplished. A few years after the rebirth of 57 State St., the First and Ocean Bank building down the street (now occupied by Banknorth) undertook its own renovation.

Page retired in 1993, but the business that bears his name still occupies the building he brought back to life. It is run by his granddaughter, Jacqueline Bradley.

"I still have that old nostalgic feeling when I walk around town and think of how it's changed," Page said. "I take a great deal of pride in having been a part of it."

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