, Newburyport, MA

July 20, 2007

A place with 'so much charm'

John Macone

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Walk through the city's South or North ends, and nailed to several houses you'll find a plaque bearing two names.

They say "Hall & Moskow," wrapped like a halo over the date of the home's construction.

They weren't home builders, nor were they Newburyport families from the old days.

Gordon Hall and Michael Moskow found Newburyport in the mid-1960s, at a time when Hall was drawn to the fight to restore the city's historical downtown. Hall and Moskow, and later, Hall's son David, would play a leading role in carrying the spirit of the city's downtown revival to neighborhoods well beyond the downtown's core.

These days Newburyporters often talk about Steven Karp, the billionaire mall developer who has bought up roughly $34.6 million in real estate in the past few years and has become the city's largest landowner. But the city's second-largest landowner, the Hall & Moskow firm, has quietly amassed an impressive share of the city as well -- valued at $22.2 million -- with a goal to preserve what can be saved and to find new ways to reuse what might otherwise be demolished.

The Tannery -- an old factory where the chemical stench was once so powerful it would make your eyes water -- is now an upscale mall, two blocks from the downtown. Across Water Street from it, a striking glass and Douglas fir building stands where old gas tanks once stood. And around the city stand a few dozen old homes that were fixed up and found a new life.

"These were the kinds of people we wanted to encourage to come into the city," said Byron Matthews, who was mayor from 1968 to 1978, crucial years for the downtown's rebirth. "These were guys who were pioneers."

'Fairly bedraggled' city

Gordon Hall came to Newburyport in 1965 with the right credentials.

He had been part of a team that came up with a plan to take a dilapidated Boston landmark and turn it into a showpiece of historical preservation, Quincy Marketplace.

The mostly-abandoned marketplace posed a number of challenges, Hall said, not the least of which was it lacked the key element in successful 1960s shopping areas -- a major department store. But its historical charm, and the opportunity to turn its enclosed spaces into dozens of small shops and eateries, seemed viable.

"We did a study, not just of what could happen, but what should happen. We decided to do it as a whole," he said. The plan was accepted by the Boston Redevelopment Authority, and served as the basis for the the marketplace's rebirth.

It wasn't long before he found Newburyport.

"I began cruising urban renewal projects in New England to see what we could do," Hall said.

"I was just fascinating that here was a city that was a thriving place for 200 years and then the music stopped," he said. "It was preserved, though it had become fairly bedraggled. There were the banks and Fowles (newsstand), but there was no vibrant downtown."

Hall, a fan of historical architecture and member of the board of the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, became involved in the Historical Society of Newbury's movement to preserve the downtown. He wanted to have a stake in what happened next.

"After a while of running around Newburyport, I decided the best thing I could do was buy old houses and fix them up," Hall said. "I said to my business partner (Michael Moskow), this city one of these days just has to turn around because it has so much charm."

Hall said he also tried to get other investors interested in Newburyport, among them his friend Edward "Ned" Johnson III, chairman of the Fidelity Investments company.

"The idea was to get Ned to buy stuff and rehab it," he said, recalling with a chuckle the time he brought Johnson and noted historical architect Abbott Lowell Cummings to Newburyport to show off its impressive architecture from the vantage point of a convertible. But Johnson had more than enough on his plate with his own family business.

"Ned had his hands full, and he decided not to," he said.

In August 1969, Hall and Moskow started buying old homes. They fixed them up and rented them out.

"They were purchasing property that was really secondary, fixing them and putting people into houses that were vacant before," said Matthews, noting the triple-decker homes on Merrimac Street and the variety of houses in the old South End that they bought. Today, Gordon Hall estimates they own 36 residential properties in the city.

Hall also brought his son David into the family business, after he graduated from college.

"David is very good with tools," he said. "He was really perfect for the job."


Fixing up houses was profitable, David and Gordon Hall said. But their next major endeavor was fraught with risk.

In 1985 they bought the former tannery factory on Liberty Street.

"It was a vacant, wet, cold industrial hulk," said Gordon Hall. "When you went inside, the chemical smell was overwhelming. It would make your eyes water."

The Halls originally planned to fix up the space for "quasi-industrial" renters, like electricians and plumbers. But another opportunity developed -- rents downtown were getting high, and some merchants were complaining. With a design by local architect Jonathan Woodman, they said, they came up with a look that was attractive to retail businesses.

"That did it," Gordon Hall said. "We got retailer tenants one after the other."

The Tannery Mall did what urban renewal planners had hoped would someday happen -- it extended the eastern boundary of Newburyport's downtown to Federal Street, said Matthews.

Matthews was particularly impressed with the finished product.

"It was a great idea," he said. "You have to give them high marks for the conversion."

Over the next few years, the Hall and Moskow company bought up more derelict and contaminated buildings and property next to the Tannery, fixed them up and incorporated them into the mall.

Among them was the site of the former Atkinson gas tanks on Water Street. For a few years, the look of the old tanks had a far softer appearance -- David Hall painted them to look like blue sky and clouds.

The plan that he and the company finally came upon for the land would give Newburyport one of its most unusual pieces of architecture. The two-story building, called Mill No. 5, is almost entirely glass, with massive Douglas fir columns. Through the middle there's a public breezeway that will connect to the city's planned, but not yet built, waterfront walkway.

But before the building went up, there was a tremendous amount of preparation to do.

The property was contaminated with fuel, so it had to be completely dug out. Some of it had leaked into the adjacent Coast Guard station.

"It was an environmental mess there," said David Hall.

He has shown leadership in at least two other areas that have caught hold in the city -- environmental conservation, and creating a biking and walking network that runs through the city and connects into nearby towns.

The Tannery has hundreds of solar panels on it to help generate electricity. In keeping with David Hall's personal conservation philosophies, Mill No. 5 is energy efficient, with radiant heating and passive solar climate control. Awnings on the building are angled so they block the summer sun and let in the winter sun.

And he continues to push for the creation of a bike trail that would follow the route of abandoned railroad lines through the city's South End, and another line on the western edge of the downtown.

"Overall I think they've done a marvelous job in Newburyport," Matthews said. "Newburyport is fortunate to have people like them."

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