As evidenced by a recent editorial in The Daily News, there's a lot of teeth gnashing going on about the future of one of the oldest buildings in Newburyport, a saltbox no less, the First Period Pettingill House on 2 Neptune St. The current owner, whose lawyer, Lisa Mead, seems to be at the center of everything controversial regarding disputes over zoning issues here in town, wants to insert a 22-foot dormer in the sloping rear roof, as well as skylights – meaning no more saltbox. This uproar surprises me. I mean, what did people expect?
If you have an institutional memory about goings on in Newburyport, past and present, you might recall the battle waged about 15 years ago, about whether to install an historic district in major portions of the North and South Ends, where the majority of our important older buildings are located. In retrospect, the scope of the proposal was geographically too ambitious, which might explain the tidal wave of angry reactions to the proposed restrictions, which in fact were not particularly onerous. As in no, no one is going to tell you what color to paint your house!
It didn't matter. The opposition was too intense, and the whole thing went down in a blaze. The only result was a one-block Local Historic District, on Fruit Street. Through these many years, I do not recall any serious disputes with it.
Those who argued for the big historic district generally stated the obvious. Without it, inappropriate renovations or alterations would inevitably degrade the authenticity of our unique architectural heritage. The house at 2 Neptune St. is an excellent example of "I told you so."
This museum-quality house, which dates to the 1650s, has already been so trashed that I, for one, can't get too steamed up about the proposed dormer. Take a look at it on your next walk. The south-facing roof has a bank of solar panels taking up almost the entire space, along with skylights. I wonder what the Puritan fathers would have thought of that. Both the south and east sides have new windows that stylistically belong in a Victorian mansard, but are 100% wrong for a First Period house. The east side also has oblong windows in the attic area that are just plain ridiculous. Add to that other accoutrements of modernity, meaning AC condenser units, solar panel and electrical apparatus, so on and so forth, and what you have is an aesthetic mess.
The current owner I'm sure is perplexed by all of this. What’s wrong with green power? What's wrong with energy efficient windows? Skylights are great, what's your problem with those? What's wrong with electric meters? Am I supposed to read by candlelight, in colonial dress?
My answer is, nothing's wrong with them at all, it's admirable stuff. The problem is, as I see it, you bought the wrong house.
Well-intentioned people make mistakes. I know, because I've made a few myself. Nonetheless, I resent this attitude of "Don't Tread on Me" that is so prevalent in life today. I saw it locally during a Zoom meeting about the Fowle's News imbroglio (there's Lisa Mead again, our former progressive mayor). The co-owner of Brine said something about "these people," as in why are "these people" giving us such trouble, when all we want to do is trample the Downtown Overlay District.
Well, I think it fair to say that "these people" are just the people who saved downtown Newburyport in the 1960s. "These people" are people who think Newburyport is extra special, and should protect those pieces of history that we can preserve, as an obligation to future generations. "We people" are people who care about the history of this place, and want to do what we can to help other people avoid egregious errors that probably will never be rectified.
The future of 2 Neptune is undecided at the moment. Hopefully the appropriate boards will kibosh the dormer proposal. But in the end, what we should really be doing is revisiting the notion of an historic district. The hour glass is draining away.
James Charles Roy lives in the Fruit Street Historic District of Newburyport.