, Newburyport, MA

May 18, 2007

In twilight of his life, famed architect gave Port hope

Angeljean Chiaramida

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NEWBURYPORT | William Graves Perry didn't need Newburyport to become famous, yet his fame as an architect showed the Clipper City how to hold true to its history while seeking its future prosperity.

It's true in the 1960s many were horrified at the thought of razing the city center in the search of economic rejuvenation, but many also believed it was the only viable way to revitalize the boarded-up blighted buildings along State Street that were such an ugly reminder of Newburyport's lost fortunes.

Although many preached preserving Newburyport's centuries-old buildings and distinctive architecture, as the bulldozers of urban renewal moved closer and closer, it was Perry's drawings and models, and his steady assurance that demonstrated exactly how to meld the city's past into its present to produce a flourishing future.

In his 80s at the time, the celebrated Boston architect had an illustrious career that included being the primary architect behind the restoration of Colonial Wiliamsburg, the first living history museum in the nation. At a time when most successful and wealthy men of his age would retire to enjoy their hobbies and their grandchildren, and to bask in the glory of their hard-earned fame, Perry answered the pleas from historically-minded Newburyport citizens. Initially donating his own time, Perry joined the crusade to save Newburyport from the wrecking ball.

The serendipity that led Perry back to Newburyport during its urban renewal era might be seen as just shy of predestination.

A few | like Dr. Robert Wilkins, local architect Edmund Burke and friend Dudley Currier | knew the city had an ace in the hole with Perry. Perry was the descendent of a Newburyport seafaring family and lived during his youth in its ancestral High Street Federalist mansion.

First educated at Noble and Greenough schools, Perry graduated from Harvard in 1905, steeped in an Ivy League legacy. Even after his graduate studies at MIT and L'Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, after serving as an airfield architect in Europe during World War I, after establishing his own architectural firm, and after being chosen in 1927 by millionaire industrialist John D. Rockefeller, Jr. to design the restoration of Virginia's Colonial Williamsburg, Perry considered Newburyport his childhood home, often living here during the summer, according to Wilkins' daughter, Mary Wilkins Haslinger.

According to a Historical Society of Old Newbury document, when the preservationist movement (the Historical Society's Committee on Renewal and Restoration) successfully gained a toehold in staving off the bulldozers in mid-1964, they were told by the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority to produce a workable alternative to the already established demolition plan. It was then Perry and his firm moved into the picture. Perry went beyond the usual role of a consulting architect, speaking at events, meeting with Mayor George Lawler and the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority, and writing to the press and other influential individuals.

But committee members | like Perry | understood that a picture is worth a thousand words. Perry and members of his firm visited the city, toured the buildings, then sat down with pen and ink. Supported to a degree by a contribution by longtime Historical Society benefactress Mrs. Florence Evans Bushee, the resulting sketches and later three-dimensional model showed Perry's concept of renewal by restoration was not building castles in the sand.

Hit of the evening

Perry's model was unveiled on Feb. 11, 1965 at a Chamber of Commerce meeting at the Masonic Temple. It showed an urban renewal restoration plan that was viable, real and to many preferable. According to a Society booklet, Perry's model "was the hit of the evening."

"In retrospect, the unveiling of the initial Perry Plan was the high point of the Committee's work," the Historical Society document states. "The Perry Plan, though far from acceptable in all its details, served a most useful political purpose as the single, really important factor in turning Newburyporters and the NRA away from demolition and toward rehabilitation."

But Perry didn't stop after creating his model. He took his dog and pony show on the road to develop a groundswell of public sentiment for preservation. For example, he assured local Rotarians in March of 1965 that when using a restoration approach to urban renewal, "you can have your cake and eat it, too," according to The Daily News' archived report of the event.

"You utilize your ground floor to show windows for displays characterizing your trade," Perry was reported to say. "Inside, you can be as modern as you want to be without disturbing the significant characteristics of an old structure."

Perry agreed the concept wasn't inexpensive and "would have to originate with an individual effort with a pilot accomplishment," after convincing a developer of the merits and possibilities of the method and project's goals.

According to former mayor Byron Matthews, that's exactly what Newburyport had to do to convince the Department of Housing and Urban Development | the federal agency overseeing and financing urban renewal activities | that restoration would work in Newburyport. The first "demonstration" project, Matthews said, was Inn Street, which would be developed along Perry's idea of creating a pedestrian thoroughfare off Market Square.

Christopher Snow was the first urban renewal developer to get underway on his restoration project in 1972. Snow | now an antique dealer in Byfield | purchased three buildings on the corner of Inn Street and Market Square (then known as parcel 9-E) for $6,800. The rest is history.

Not every building in the 22-acre urban renewal area of lower State Street, Pleasant and Green streets was saved. Many were inspected and demolished because they lacked the physical integrity needed to qualify for restoration.

Yet, many who remember that pivotal time | like former mayors Byron Matthews and George Lawler | continually thank providence for bringing Perry back to Newburyport. With Perry's remarkable insight and skill, Newburyport learned it didn't have to give up its yesterdays to make way for its tomorrows.

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