, Newburyport, MA

May 18, 2007

Meet Inn Street's pioneers

Stephen Tait

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NEWBURYPORT | They viewed Inn Street as an opportunity, at a time when no one else really did.

As a result, the five men who developed the block | tucked away behind State and Pleasant streets | helped to spur development throughout downtown.

More than 35 years later, four of the five still owns his piece of history, and one still works from his Inn Street office.

Each of them | Dick Sullivan, Jonathan Woodman, Swift Barnes, Chris Snow and Michael Rowan | bought buildings on lower Inn Street in the early 1970s as part of the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority's urban renewal plan. They were the only people interested in buying the lots at the time, and they developed a shared sense of responsibility to help rejuvenate downtown Newburyport.

They were able to transform a run-down section of downtown into a thriving retail center.

Each moved to the street for a different reason. These are their stories | and that of Claudia Harris, who as the owner of the Elephant's Trunk remains the only original tenant.

Downtown showroom

In 1948, after returning from duty in the Pacific during World War II, Swift Barnes wanted to move east | and he found Newburyport.

"I wanted to live in a small New England town," Barnes, 87, said from the basement of the building he owns on Inn Street. "I loved it from the minute I moved into town."

Barnes went to work for Towle Silver Company, then the largest employer in the city, where he stayed for six years as a silver maker. He made a temporary move to Canada, but quickly was back in Newburyport to open his own store, Old Newbury Crafters.

There, at a shop on Merrimac Street, he made silverware and jewelry that he sold to major retailers like Tiffany and Co. and Cartier. Eventually he wanted more exposure and in the early 1970s the opportunity to buy a building downtown on Inn Street presented itself.

"I thought maybe we should have a showroom here, so that's why I bought this building," he said, adding that he bought it for about $6,000. "I thought why don't we try this, see what happens."

Since then, the building has served as a gallery for silver and gifts, a place for jewelers to make their wares and a showroom. The second and third floors of his building served as office space and apartments, respectively.

Barnes, who is married to his high school sweetheart, Virginia, said one of his two daughters has taken over the store, called Churchill Gallery. In the early days, he said, Virginia, also the daughter's name, would bring in small works of art to display with the jewelry and silver.

Now, and since 1997, the gallery focuses solely on high-end art, including paintings and sculpture.

Barnes has two daughters, a son and three grandchildren. He and Virginia now live on Cape Cod. During his time in Newburyport, he also served two terms on the City Council.

Office space

At 31 years old, Michael Rowan wasn't looking to speculate and jump into the real estate business.

His move to Inn Street was much more simple than that: He was an orthodontist and wanted to move his practice to a better spot downtown.

"We needed more space," he said. "For us it was attractive to be downtown."

About the same time, the redevelopment authority was looking to develop Inn Street. So Rowan hired an architect and -- despite a derelict building where thieves had taken all the valuable copper pipes -- he signed off on the building as being structurally sound.

"You got a location, which you then rebuilt," Rowan said. "The buildings were safe to walk in. But they were uninhabitable."

From then on, Rowan made his home on Inn Street.

He's retired now, 35 years later, but still owns the building. He also owns a summer home in Maine.

Rowan and his wife, Lee, have a son, daughter and four grandchildren.

Looking back, he said it was a smart move by the authority to seek local developers for the first stage of redevelopment. It allowed the buildings to be self-sufficient | since they were owner-occupied | rather than relying on rents.

"I think the whole downtown is spectacular. You have an area of uniform construction," he said. "It has been a great place to work. I'm happy I did it."

The only thing that concerns Rowan is the future. He said he hopes city leaders have the foresight to understand that the project is more than three decades old and may need work in coming years.

"It is reaching the point where some things will need to be re-done," he said, adding that "it would be a shame" if it were left without proper maintenance.

Antiques addict

In the 1950s, as Interstate 95 plowed a path through Newburyport, houses had to be razed.

As a 10-year-old boy, Chris Snow saw an opportunity. He went to those houses to collect what could be collected: brass hinges, square bricks, and wide pine flooring.

Then he started selling it, only to buy more antique wares. It turned out to be the beginning of a career in antiques and auctioning.

"I appreciated this stuff from an early age," he said. "I just didn't know I was a preservationist."

Snow moved to the city in 1952 and has lived in the region since.

As an antiques dealer, he had several warehouses full of goods, buying bulk quantities of items from places around the world, such as Iran. When he bought his place on Inn Street | right at the corner where it meets Market Square | he put in an antiques co-op that included a book seller, clock maker and framer.

"We were interested in seeing these buildings preserved," he said of his reason for spending several thousand dollars to buy the space.

Snow sold his property in 2005 for $1.45 million. He said the decision to move into the building has proved worthwhile as he reaches his "golden years" and helped to provide better lives for his children.

"I had my part in history and I'm glad I did it," he said.

He lives in Byfield, where he still runs an auctioning business. Sure, he's 63, but he says he's not done working yet.

"I'm still playing with antiques," he said. "And I love it."

The mayor

If there ever was one, Dick Sullivan is a Newburyporter.

He was born in the city. He owned a business downtown for years. He was a city councilor. His father was the city marshal for three decades. And, for eight consecutive years, the city referred to him as Mayor Sullivan.

At 37, he jumped at the chance to buy a building on Inn Street. He knew the spaces were in poor shape | "it couldn't get any worse, " he said | but he had always been good with tools, woodwork and manual labor.

"It was a no-brainer for me," he said.

So for a year straight | laboring after work and on the weekends along with the other men | he put in "sweat equity" to build an office that he would occupy for decades. But once the work was finished, he felt he had too much free time.

"It's all done," he remembered saying to himself at the time, "what do I do now?"

He got political.

A friend, Sullivan said, came to him one day and said he was going to run for City Council. Sullivan said he thought it was a good idea and ran himself, winning a spot.

Then he ran for mayor. He won four straight terms in 1977, 1979, 1981 and 1983.

Sullivan is still married to his wife, Laurine, whom he met in high school. He lives on Congress Street and continues to own the building on Inn Street.

He is the father of four sons and four daughters, grandfather to 13 and great-grandfather to three more.

"My wife and I are proud that we raised a successful family," he said.

The architect

As a student in Cincinnati, Jonathan Woodman saw the urban renewal "federal bulldozer" at work.

Woodman, studying to be an architect, said he saw many historic buildings in the city torn down and replaced with public housing, all part of the federal urban renewal program. But one neighborhood, known as Mount Adams, didn't let the bulldozer in and instead turned a district dotted with brick buildings into one of the city's most desirable locations.

It now sports theaters, hip bars, high-end apartments and museums. That, Woodman said, was what he hoped Newburyport would become.

"I saw how successful it was as a student," the now 65-year-old said of the Cincinnati neighborhood, adding that when he came back to the North Shore, he saw Newburyport striving for the same sort of renewal.

"I could see that what Newburyport was trying to do was to restore and revitalize a community," he said.

After graduate school, Woodman said he was looking for something that would be vital for the next 25 years and saw an opportunity in Newburyport with the buildings on Inn Street. He decided to buy the building and start his firm.

"No one was interested in being a developer downtown," he said. "It seemed like an opportunity to me that made sense. I was given the opportunity to reconstruct the building."

For an architect, Newburyport was a great place to be. The city's reputation grew, Woodman said, as the urban renewal continued to thrive. And since Woodman's firm was a part of that | helping to design many buildings downtown | it served as a great advertising tool for his business.

"It was the best marketing we could ever have," he said. "It was good for business."

Woodman, who is married to his wife, Betsy, and has one daughter, still works out of his Inn Street office, which takes up the second and third floors. He has fond memories of the block, evidenced by the collection of pictures he still owns of before and after the renewal.

"I'm proud of the fact that I'm associated with what went on here," he said. "They saw that blight could be a jewel and be an anchor of an urban park."

The loyal tenant

When Claudia Harris was 27 years old, she said she was too "green" in life to realize the risk of moving in to the newly renovated Inn Street | even as the rest of Newburyport was still in shambles.

She rented from Michael Rowan for $125 a month. The total cost of the inventory to start her high-end clothing store was about $5,000. As a result, she didn't see risk, she saw opportunity.

"It wasn't something where you were going to go in debt and lose your house," she said. "We thought we were smart."

As it turns out, she was.

Harris, now 63, still operates The Elephant's Trunk in the bottom floor of Rowan's building.

Harris moved to Newburyport in 1968 from Alaska via San Francisco where she went to graphic design school. Her husband, Marshall, was from New England, so they moved back east. She worked for several years in Boston as an executive secretary and hated the work, so she stopped.

"You always hear that you should do something you love," she said. " I love clothing, I love shopping. You just have your little dream when you're young."

She said at the start, when Inn Street was the only real attraction downtown, customers would make an conscious effort to get to her store and others on the block. Despite muddy walkways with boards serving as bridges, people would still come to shop.

"We never had a day without a sale," she said. "There was just a tremendous amount of excitement for the redevelopment. It was a blast."

After more than three decades of serving Newburyport, it's still difficult for Harris to believe so much time has passed since she first opened.

"When you say 35 years, it doesn't really seem like that because I still love it," she said.

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