, Newburyport, MA

Port in Progress

June 15, 2007

The day Bossy's garage fell

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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.

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