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William Graves Perry may have been slight of stature, but his talent, attention to detail, Bostonian appreciation of history, Yankee work ethic, and meticulous demeanor made him an architectural giant during the age of American moguls.
Born in 1884 in Boston | only 20 years after the end of the Civil War | Perry was the son of Charles F. Perry and Georgianna West (Graves), a descendant of an old Newburyport seafaring family. He grew up in Newburyport in family wealth in a High Street mansion, graduating from Harvard, MIT and Paris' L'Ecole des Beaux Arts by 1913, just in time to serve in Europe from 1915 to 1916 during World War I.
By the time he returned to Newburyport to save its once-grand city center from annihilation, this 19th century gentleman had long acquired his well-earned celebrity in both the worlds of architecture and history. As a founder of his architectural firm in 1922, Perry earned a reputation for himself as a fine designer of college, private school and other commercial buildings. Locally, Perry designed Plum Island's American Yacht Club in 1908, and it was Perry who got the call to design St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Newburyport, after the chapel burned.
But it was his work as the architect handpicked by industrial czar and philanthropist John D. Rockefeller, Jr. to design Colonial Williamsburg, an American living history treasure in Virginia, that would lead Perry to architectural immortality.
"He was in his 80s when I joined the firm in 1965," said West Newbury retired architect Peter Ringenbach. "I was in my 20s and a young architect, and he was sort of the firm icon. He was not a large man at all, maybe five foot seven or eight. He was a person of extreme detail, and he knew what he wanted.
"He was very particular," Ringenbach remembered. "His office was never disheveled. He was always beautifully dressed in a three-piece suit with a gold chain and a watch fob. He'd go into his office, take off his jacket, hang it up and put on a long, gray smock. He came from the age when architects drew in ink. Smocks were used to keep the ink from staining architects' clothing."
A gray smock was not the only harbinger of the past to which Perry clung, Ringenbach said. Perry had a fondness for his old upright phone, and he wouldn't let it go.
"He used an old-fashioned phone that required him to hold the earpiece up to his ear with one hand and the speaker portion to his mouth with the other," Ringenbach said, the smile in his voice audible. "What that meant was you couldn't take notes while on the phone. Every time we had the phone people in, they'd try to give him a new one, but he insisted on having his old phone back."
Yet Perry's fastidious personality is responsible for his getting the job of a lifetime, the Williamsburg commission, Ringenbach said.
In early 1926, Perry and a Harvard classmate Arthur Derby passed by Williamsburg to take in the Georgian architecture while returning from a duck hunting trip to South Carolina. When Derby fell ill, requiring surgery, the men left their car behind, returning to Boston by train.
Returning for the car in spring, Perry again visited the brick home of George Wythe, a mansion on the green of the College of William and Mary. It was then he met the Rev. Dr. William Goodwin, a clergyman who at the time was William and Mary's director of development. Goodwin was in the process of restoring an 18th-century home, and Perry noticed he needed old door locks, which Perry just happened to collect.
"Perry took measurements of the locks and screws and keyholes, and told Goodwin he'd see what he could find when he got back to Boston," Ringenbach said. "About a month later, Goodwin got a box of locks in the mail."
At the time, Goodwin was also looking for a benefactor to fund his dream of preserving Williamsburg as a historical tribute to its era. The man who would financially back Goodwin's vision would be John Rockefeller, Jr., although Rockefeller's name was kept secret.
"When they reached a point where they needed an architect, the Rev. Goodwin said 'I know just the person,'" Ringenbach said. "Perry was retained, but wasn't told Rockefeller was involved. He was finally invited to New York and told to go to a hotel and wait for a phone call. Perry used to say he lived on room service for two days because he never left the hotel for fear he'd miss the call."
The relationship between Williamsburg and Perry lasted from 1927 until Williamsburg set up its own architectural department in 1953, Ringenbach said. Appropriately, a member of Perry's firm left to set up the department.
The professional affiliation with Williamsburg may have been over, but the belief in the value of historic preservation remained.
"Preservation was always an important aspect of our practice," Ringenbach.
That importance led Newburyport preservationists to tap Perry for the cause. Perry, who was living in North Andover at the time, not only helped turn the tide away from demolition, but also sent in a sealed bid for the renovation of the Custom House, with his junior partner Conover Fitch, Ringenbach said.
"The day they opened the bids for the restoration, both Perry and Conover drove to Newburyport in separate cars," Ringenbach said. "Conover said when they opened the bids, they were very pleased with the numbers and they went back for a reception.
"But Conover noticed Bill was acting a little strange, and he offered to drive him to the reception. Bill refused the ride and said he'd take his own car. Conover pulled behind him in the car to follow him to the event just in case. During the drive, Bill pulled over and told Conover, 'I said I'm fine, now leave me alone.'"
"Conover went to the party, but Bill never showed up. Then someone said a man had suffered a heart attack in his car. It was Bill Perry. He recovered, but it was an example of what Bill Perry was like. He was very determined to do what he wanted to do, the way he wanted to do it."
Resource: "The Architect of Colonial Williamsburg, William Graves Perry" by Will Molineaux.
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