, Newburyport, MA

May 4, 2007

"The roofs were rotting and the walls were bulging"

Dan Atkinson

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The bowling alley on Water Street had been a downtown gathering point for decades. But in 1975 there was no reason to spare the rundown and shuttered building.

"Some of these places ... the roofs were rotting and the walls were bulging," said Chris Snow, who restored the alley.

By the time the building the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority acquired the building in the late 1960s, it had been abandoned for years and had a tree growing out of the second floor, according to former NRA Director Jack Bradshaw. The area had been declining for years -- Josiah Welch remembered coming back to the city in the 1950s after serving in the military and barely recognizing downtown.

"It looked like war-torn Europe in Market Square," Welch said.

Snow had moved to Newburyport in 1952, and found the environment to be a "major culture shock" to a boy who had been growing up in Boston and Brookline. But he still hung around downtown before it was revitalized, even delivering the Daily News to merchants and residents in the area.

The first wave of renovation in the early 1970s had revitalized Inn Street, where Snow had helped restore one of the parcels. But a recession had slowed development by the mid-1970s to the point where "everything had collapsed," Snow said.

But the old bowling alley building had potential. In the heart of Market Square, it has an unusual feature -- it towers over the street because the highest point on its roof faces the square, and its long roof pitches off to the side. Most other buildings in the downtown are aligned just the opposite -- their roofs pitch toward the street, and massive firewalls that extend above the roofline stand between each unit.

The old bowling alley's unusual feature offers a possible clue to the building's origin. It may be one of the only downtown buildings that predates 1811, when a great fire swept through downtown Newburyport, destroying most buildings. When the downtown was rebuilt, fire safety codes changed the look and alignment of downtown buildings.

Snow worked with the Newburyport Institution for Savings, which agreed to cover permitting fees and other financing, if he would cover construction costs at the bowling alley. He teamed up with Tahar Chaffai, a Moroccan he knew from his travels while antiquing. Chaffai was wealthy and looking for a stable investment, Snow said.

"He had a lot of cash he wanted to put into U.S. real estate," Snow recalled. "He was afraid the king would be killed and extremists would take over ... he wanted a fallback plan."

Chaffai's investment was not as secure as he probably would have liked. As construction was about to start, Snow said a lawsuit over the fate of the waterfront brought about a cease and desist order and an archeological survey of the waterfront. Archeologists and students spent three months studying the area, finding few Native American artifacts, Snow said.

"They proved there was white men on the waterfront in the 18th century," Snow said. "How about that?"

When Snow's crew was able to start, they worked fast, he said. A team of "old-time Yankee master builders" finished the renovation under budget and ahead of schedule. Snow did some design work of his own, lining the roof with decorative eagles to break up falling clusters of snow.

The first downstairs tennant was Chaffai, who set up a bazaar that was "too early for its time," Snow said. The building's bottom floor now houses the Native Sun, a clothing store.

And the building had another problem that residents today can empathize with: flooding after heavy rain.

"We had to do the next best thing and provide tenants with sandbags," Snow recealled.

The project wasn't easy, and Snow had to periodically inject it with cash from his antiques business. But revitalizing downtown was also exhilarating, he said.

"These were exciting times," Snow said. "Newburyport was really hot ... I was brought up into the political process, which was a lot of fun, and I made a lot of friends."

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