, Newburyport, MA

June 15, 2007

Renovators had to make new look old

Dan Atkinson

Click here to return to the Port in Progress Homepage

When developers in the late 1960s were bidding on Inn Street properties, they only had to buy the land, not the buildings themselves. Most properties went for under $10,000, according to then-Mayor Byron Matthews.

However, there was a catch. The buildings were free, but they could only be renovated according to specific architectural standards.

"Even though they got the property for a good price, they had to follow the guidelines," Matthews said.

The cost of such renovations made up for the cheap land price, according to developer Dick Sullivan. He estimated his renovations cost about $125,000 | $660,000 in today's money.

And the restrictions were "pretty tight," Sullivan said. Interiors could get heavily remodeled, but the exteriors could not. Windows had to have small panes, and storm windows could not be visible, because there were no storm windows in the 19th century.

For brickwork, the remodelers had to use a grapevine splice, Sullivan said. In previous centuries, bricklayers would take an actual piece of grapevine to indent the mortar between bricks. Inn Street developers didn't have to raid area vineyards, but they did have to recreate the vine's effect, Sullivan said.

"We had (contemporary) tools, but we were supposed to emulate 1820s craftmanship," he said.

But Sullivan and Matthews said developers knew what they were getting into and were happy to be part of the preservation effort. Sullivan said future developers should have the same standards.

"I think anyone who came in today to develop land, like the waterfront, would want to adhere to those requirements," Sullivan said. "People come to Newburyport to be attracted by the historicity of the community ... we want to continue that."

Luckily, those requirements did not extend to the dilapidated interiors of the buildings. Sullivan totally gutted his building, ripping rotting plaster and lathes out of the walls and throwing them out the window into a Dumpster. By the end of the demolition, "you could look right across the building and see nothing but the stairway coming up the other side," Sullivan said.

Fortunately, Sullivan had plenty of people to help with the renovation. Sullivan's children and other kids in the neighborhood would happily tear down what was already falling apart, but they would also help build the inside up, he said. Sullivan's older sons would help hang drywall, and he still has a photo of his six-year-old using a paint roller to lay down a prime coat of paint on the new walls.

At lunchtime, the children would gather around one of the few parts of the interior that still worked | the fireplace. Sullivan and other adults would help them roast hot dogs.

"They had a lot of fun," Sullivan recalled. "It was a good experience for the entire family."

The buildings had other problems besides weak materials. They also had occupants who Matthews politely described as "intoxicated at times." Not quite squatters, these homeless people would split time between cardboard boxes on the waterfront and the pre-renovation downtown buildings.

While people getting into the structures was bad, what they were doing there was worse, Matthews said. A couple who broke into Jonathan Woodman's building on Inn Street built a fire in an old sink to warm up, and wound up burning most of the building, Matthews said. The roof, back wall and entire second floor needed to be replaced.

"The redevelopment authority and myself would always keep our fingers crossed every night that a fire wouldn't wipe out the entire block," Matthews said.

But despite fire-happy occupants and decades of deterioration, the downtown buildings were still an attractive prospect for developers. Historical renovation forced them to stick to certain standards, but there was a reason the structures originally built to those standards were still standing more than a century later, Matthews said.

"You would go in and see these 12-by-12 roof beams ... everything in those structures was fantastic," Matthews said. "They'll be here a long time yet."

Click here to return to the Port in Progress Homepage