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Providence had Buddy Cianci. Boston had James Michael Curley. And Newburyport had Andrew Jackson Gillis.
Better known as "Bossy" Gillis, he was a rogue who rose to become mayor and, arguably, the city's most colorful and controversial political character. His career as mayor stretched, off and on, from the flapper days of the 1920s to the depths of the Cold War.
He was arrested more than two dozen times for various small offenses and did a few short stints in jail, once for punching the mayor in the mouth in City Hall in a fit of rage.
His passion and personality created a love-hate relationship with voters. They elected and rejected him time and time again.
Bossy's era in politics ended just as Newburyport began its downtown urban renewal in 1960. The red-haired Irishman had nothing directly to do with the city's urban renewal, but urban renewal would leave its mark on him.
His landmark gas station in Market Square was one of the pieces that didn't fit in with preservationists' view of what the restored downtown should look like.
Each day, hundreds of people walk by the elegant federal-style building that now occupies the site, surrounded by neatly laid red paving bricks. Most passersby are probably unaware it was once a famously raucous corner of the square.
Emblazoned with the sign "BOSSY GILLIS" running three stories down its side, from its opening shortly before World War II to Bossy's death in 1965, the gas station was a hub of Newburyport's downtown activity -- and oftentimes, it's unofficial city hall.
"He was the busiest gas station in Newburyport," said Joe Callahan, a retired Newburyport firefighter and history buff. Callahan grew up across the street from one of Bossy's gas stations on Greenleaf Street and worked for years in the city's old fire station next door to his Market Square station. The fire station is now home to the Firehouse Center for the Arts and Not Your Average Joe's restaurant.
"Because of who he was, he drew a lot of people, and he had the lowest gas prices in town," Callahan said.
'Presence to contend with'
Bossy served six two-year terms between 1927 and 1960.
Newburyport's redevelopment efforts began the day he left office, when his successor, Al Zabriskie, announced a plan for rehabilitating downtown Newburyport. That plan eventually led to the formation of the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority and the restoration of the city's Federal-era brick downtown.
Urban renewal wasn't something Bossy Gillis was interested in, said Bill Plante, former editor of The Daily News, who reported on his doings as mayor.
"Bossy was against everything," Plante said, recalling that Gillis derailed early attempts to improve the downtown. Parking meters had been installed and the money they collected was meant to be used to buy lots downtown to solve parking problems. But Bossy Gillis found other uses | including buying land at the tip of Plum Island to build a parking lot.
When Bossy was mayor, he spent little time in City Hall. He preferred to run Newburyport from his gas station. In his last few years of life, he lived on the top floors of the building.
Plante described him as follows:
"Bossy personified the political radicalism of class consciousness," he wrote. "He tipped over the apple cart in ways combative, divisive and highly personal. In or out of office, he was a presence to contend with. He was honest, tough, resilient and, when aroused, politically cruel. In short, even for the times, he was incorrect. But he was loyal to his friends, and they were loyal to him."
"Under the right conditions, his methods succeeded and he was re-elected. When they failed, it was largely because his personal behavior had become tiresome, once again, or enough voters wanted something done he would not do."
Stories about Bossy's personality and stunts abound. One involves his first attempt to build a gas station, in 1925, at the corner of High and State streets, where the Mobil station stands now.
Construction required him to move an old home, and he quickly found himself in a running battle with what he called "the fossils that run this burg" -- the well-heeled, established families of High Street.
Time Magazine zeroed in on the clash and reported that Gillis' foes had enacted zoning ordinances to stop him. In response, Gillis sprinkled his vacant land with tombstones and chamber pots and a sign that proclaimed, "The Spirit of Old Newburyport."
He stormed City Hall and punched the mayor in the face, which landed him in jail for 60 days. Bossy cleared the final hurdles to opening the garage when he became mayor two years later.
His rough-and-tumble political style would continue through his life. He was known to paint the names of political enemies on bathroom plumbing and display the pieces on his building. He shouted out insults if his foes walked through Market Square.
Bossy's unusual personality continued to catch the fancy of the national press. In 1949, when voters returned him to office at age 52 after a 14-year interval, Time Magazine revisited him and described him this way:
"'Bossy Gillis still looked as seedy as Burpee's spring catalogue, and he fitted into the gentle, museum-piece decor of old Newburyport, Mass., like a prime bull at a vegetarians' convention. But the coming of middle age, a wife and a new black bowler had smoothed some of Bossy's sharp edges."
Bossy died in 1965, two days after he ran unsuccessfully for another term as mayor. His station was taken over by Charles Worthley, but time was running out for the downtown landmark.
By 1968, the downtown's renewal reached a turning point. Dozens of buildings had been bought or taken by eminent domain by the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority and were targeted for destruction. Among them was Bossy's garage. The old brick building it was attached to | the North Block, which housed Dugan Supply, a plumbing and hardware store | was to be saved.
In April of that year, Newburyporters had watched as blocks along Inn, Merrimac, Green and Unicorn streets were demolished. The second phase of demolition, slated for December, targeted 27 buildings, most of them near the waterfront.
Unicorn Street's demise had left a deep impression on many. Preservationists argued that several waterfront buildings should be saved. And even Bossy's garage was seen by some as a landmark.
In a letter to The Daily News, H. Patterson Hale Jr. pleaded the case for saving the garage and a nearby warehouse, noting that he had driven miles out of his way to show the famed gas station to an out-of-town friend.
"If the wrecking ball is turned on these two landmarks, another bit of the heart and soul of old Newburyport will be gone forever," he wrote.
Bossy's garage didn't go down without a fight. Worthley was told on Nov. 26, 1968, that he had to be out in four days. He was able to stay a week beyond that but wasn't happy about how he was treated.
In an advertisement he placed in The Daily News, Worthley lamented, "If the Asbestos (a newsletter Bossy had penned during his lifetime) was still around, we might get the story behind the story of why Gillis is forced to close on this date, while other businesses are allowed to stay open."
The demolition was watched by a sizable crowd of "sidewalk superintendents" | gawkers who gathered to see history in the making | and filmed by a handful of amateur cameramen.
Among the debris were acerbic campaign fliers left over from Bossy's days.
The spot was vacant for eight years before the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority struck a deal with Boston developer James McFarland. He bought the block in 1976, restored North Block and rebuilt the corner where Bossy's garage had once stood. It opened for business in May 1977, and the first tenant was Edward Foster's Gallery of Homes real estate office.
Many things have changed over the years. On the spot where Bossy ran the city, pumped gas and cussed his enemies stands a cozy, upscale gift shop called My Country Store.
And in Bossy's day, gas was 10 cents a gallon, Callahan recalled.
"I don't know what he would think today of gas being over $3 a gallon," he said.
Click here to return to the Port in Progress Homepage
Click here to return to the Port in Progress Homepage
- Port in Progress
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